In retrospect, Steve figured he should've noticed that Bucky wasn't the same.
Then again, Steve wasn't the same either. There was also a lot of other stuff to worry about, not least of which was if he was going to be arrested once they got back to camp. Or if they were going to send Bucky home, or throw him back into the fray that had already almost killed him. And then Steve was preoccupied with the relief that not only was he not being arrested, but that he was finally getting to fight. Best of all, Bucky was staying with him.
And in his defense, there was nothing to notice. Not at first. Nothing big enough to eclipse the horror of finding his best friend strapped down and reciting his name, rank and service number like some ghastly automaton. And Bucky was fine anyway. Steve never found out what caused the blood in his ear or the bands of asymmetrical bruises on his face, but it didn't matter. Bucky was fine. He was strong enough to walk as soon as he was off the table, then run when things started exploding.
Sure, he went pale and quiet when he saw what was under Schmidt's mask, but Steve couldn't blame him for that. The guy's face looked like something out of a Boris Karloff film. Thank God that'd never happened to him.
That must've been what Erskine meant about the serum making bad worse, Steve figured. Schmidt must've been pretty damn bad to end up like that.
Bucky was quiet on the long walk back to camp, but that was only when he wasn't making sure the men were all right, or stepping up to compensate for Steve's lack of combat experience. As long as he was looking after everyone, he was as cheerful, confident and charming as always. But when it was just him and Steve, walking together at the head of the phalanx, his eyes went shadowed and distant and he barely said a word.
That made sense though. Bucky had been through hell. He'd talk when he wanted to. And he still smiled back when Steve grinned at him, like nothing had changed. So it was easy to tell himself Bucky was fine. Steve even believed it.
Bucky finally said something on the last night before they reached camp. He was keeping watch though it wasn't his turn, sitting on the turret of the giant tank they'd liberated from the factory. Steve was too antsy to sleep himself, worried about the next day, so he climbed up to join him. He sat as near as he could, throwing his arm around Bucky's shoulders to pull him close. Nothing wrong with Captain America keeping his buddy warm on a cold, dark night.
Bucky went stiff. But a moment later he sighed and relaxed into the curve of Steve's arm.
Bucky shrugged. Steve hated how easily he could feel his bones. He was so glad they were almost back to the camp, where he could make sure Bucky got as much food and rest as he needed. "Not really tired."
That was bullshit, but Steve had known Bucky long enough to tell when there wasn't any point in arguing. He just tugged him a little closer instead. "Well, if you get tired I don't mind finishing your watch for you."
"Thanks," Bucky said, and then nothing.
Steve waited, trying not to worry as the silence stretched out taut and sharp as a wire. "Penny for your thoughts?" he asked finally, his patience outrun by concern.
"I keep thinkin' about Schmidt." Bucky's voice was so soft Steve wasn't sure he was supposed to hear it. "Why the serum did that to him, but not to you."
"You mean, why it didn't turn me into a monster?"
Bucky swallowed, then nodded. "Yeah."
Steve's first instinct was to say he didn't know, that he was just a kid from Brooklyn, nothing special. But even though that was true, it still felt like lying, and Bucky wouldn't accept that kind of answer anyway.
"Erskine told me about Schmidt the night before I got the serum," Steve said. "He said that Schmidt demanded that Erskine give it to him before the procedure was ready, and that was one of the reasons he ended up looking like that."
"What was the other reason?"
Steve grimaced. "It's going to make me sound hoity-toity."
"Just tell me." There was none of the teasing Steve expected in Bucky's voice, just strain.
He was afraid, Steve realized. He could've kicked himself. "You don't have to worry, Buck," he said quickly, feeling like a fool. "It's been months since I got the serum and I'm still the same. I promise, I'm not going to look like that."
But, "I'm not worried about you," Bucky snapped. "I know you're never gonna look like that. Just tell me the other reason already."
Steve had no idea why Bucky sounded angry. "All right. Fine." He licked his lips, still hesitating because the reason did make him sound like he had too fine an opinion of himself. "Erskine said that he chose me instead of one of the big, strong guys because, since I'd known what it was like to be weak, I wouldn't abuse my strength. He didn't want a perfect soldier, but a good man. Because the serum made the good inside people better, and the bad inside them worse."
"Oh," Bucky said. "Makes sense. You got so much good in you, Stevie."
Steve turned his head enough to kiss Bucky's hair, because there was no one around to see. "I got nothing inside me that you don't."
"Sure you do." It sounded like the beginning of a joke, but Bucky didn't finish it. Instead he said, "What do you think I'd look like, then? If I got it?"
"If you got the serum?" It was a strange question, but the answer was so easy Steve didn't have to think about it. "You'd look like you, Buck. The serum wouldn't have to change anything."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Bucky said. That didn't sound like a joke either.
"Stevie. Stevie, you gotta help me."
It was their last night at camp. Steve would lead the Howling Commandos out tomorrow morning. He was nervous as hell, though he'd done his best to hide it. He might have infiltrated the Hydra factory on his own, but he was honest enough to know there was no way Schmidt could have anticipated a real-live Captain America breaking into his base; Steve wouldn't have that advantage again. Right now he was mostly relying on his own bravado and the lingering awe from the rescue to get Bucky's gang of talented misfits to listen to him.
Bravado, lingering awe, and Bucky. Especially Bucky. But Bucky was standing in Steve's quarters, pale and trembling in just his singlet and uniform pants, with his bare feet red and raw from the cold. He had a bloody knife in his hand and blood obscuring half his face.
"Oh my God! Bucky, what happened?" Steve dropped the book he'd hoped would bore him enough to sleep and then bounded off the bed to go to him. "What happened? Did someone attack you?" Bucky flinched violently when Steve touched his arm, hissing like he'd been burned. His skin was hot. "Are you all right?"
Stupid thing to ask when the answer was so obvious. "I don't know what happened," Bucky said, answering the first question. He was breathing almost too fast to speak. "I don't know what it is. I woke up with my head hurting and then…." He ducked his head a little, tilted the non-bloody side towards Steve and shoved a hank of hair away from his forehead. Just past the hairline there was a shallow lump with a small, tan bump in the middle, like rounded bone poking through the skin. "Cut 'em off. Please, cut them off." He held out the knife.
Steve didn't touch it. "Are those…are those horns? Did Hydra do that?"
"I don't know!" Bucky shouted. "I don't know! Just get rid of them!" He slapped the knife into Steve's hand, then knelt at his feet like a youth about to be sacrificed.
The knife handle was sticky with blood. Steve wanted to throw it across the room. "I don't want to hurt you."
"Just do it!" Bucky gritted his teeth, chest heaving. "Please, Stevie. I tried to do it myself but I don't know if I got all of it. Please, help me. I can't…you know what'll happen if they see me."
Steve didn't know who 'they' were, but it didn't matter. He thought of the isolation ward where he found Bucky, and Colonel Phillips' casual threat to send Steve to a lab. He knew Senator Brandt's self-interest was the only reason he'd avoided an isolation ward of his own. Bucky was right.
"Oh my God, Bucky," he breathed. "What did they do to you?"
"I don't know," Bucky said again. His anger was gone. Now he just sounded miserable and afraid. "I just found the fucking things today. Please cut them off."
"Okay, okay." Steve licked his lips, thinking. "Take your shirt off. I need something to staunch the blood."
"It stops bleeding pretty fast," Bucky said, but he yanked the singlet over his head anyway, sucking in air through his teeth. Everywhere the cloth had touched, his skin was red as a sunburn.
Steve gasped. "Bucky? What—?"
"I don't know," Bucky ground out. "It doesn't matter, okay? I can handle it. My head's what I care about." He wadded up the shirt and put it on Steve's cot.
"Right. Sure." Steve lifted the knife, but hesitated. "We should cauterize it or something. What if you get an infection?"
Bucky snorted. "Really don't give a fuck, Stevie." But all the same he reached into his pocket and slapped a package of sulfa powder on the cot next to his shirt.
"Oh. Great." Steve took a breath, told himself to stop being a coward. "You'll need to hold your hair back." He waited gratefully for a couple more seconds while Bucky scooped the hair away from his scalp with both hands. "Okay. I'll try to do this as fast as possible."
The one Bucky had done himself seemed to be mostly gone. There was a jagged, flat hole where the mound used to be, except for one tiny piece where it looked like Bucky lifted the knife too soon. Steve started there, holding the blade almost flat to sheer off the remains. He did it as fast as possible, careful of Bucky's forehead and hands. It came off remarkably quickly, like cutting a fingernail except for all the blood. Bucky grunted in pain but didn't move. Steve snatched Bucky's wadded shirt and pressed it to the wound as the blood welled up. "How long is it gonna bleed for?"
Bucky shrugged. "Few minutes."
The bleeding went sluggish pretty quick, probably because Steve was pressing so hard. Bucky hadn't moved, but his teeth were gritted. "You all right for me to cut the second one?"
"Just get it over with."
The second, untouched horn took more effort and bled like a son of a bitch. Bucky's singlet was soaked by the time the bleeding finally slowed enough for Steve to lift it away. Bucky was white as a sheet, except for the bloodstains and the unnatural red where his shirt had been.
Steve tossed the ruined singlet into a corner, then turned back to Bucky in time to catch him when he stood only for his knees to give out. Bucky cried out at Steve's touch and shoved away from him. He sat heavily on the cot, breathing hard and staring at nothing. Sweat beaded in the hollow of his throat and glinted off his overly sharp collarbones.
He blinked a few times, then dragged his gaze up to Steve. "M'okay."
"The hell you are. Lie down." Steve reached to help him but yanked his hands back when Bucky flinched. Instead he just moved the pack of sulfa powder and watched with his hands clenched while Bucky laboriously lay down on the bed. Bucky crossed his arms over his chest, grimacing.
"Is your back hurting?"
Steve glanced at the sulfa packet he hadn't opened, then tossed it onto the pack he was bringing with him. "What can I do?"
Bucky squeaked out a miserable laugh. "Kill me."
"Don't say that!"
"Relax. S'a joke."
"Yeah, well. It's not funny." Steve sat on the floor, exhausted just from worrying and the labor of slicing off Bucky's horn buds or whatever the hell they were. At this rate he'd lead the Commandos into the jaws of death before they even got out of the camp. "You're going to need to wash up before anyone sees you."
"Yeah." They both ignored how Bucky's breath stuttered a little, and Steve carefully didn't watch him wiping his eyes. "So. Guess this is my bad becoming worse, huh?"
"What?" Steve's head jerked up, then he rocketed to his feet. "Don't you say that! Don't you dare say that! This is Hydra's fault, not yours! It has nothing to do with you!"
Bucky just stared up at him with terrible, bleak-eyed calm. "You told me what Erskine said. An' you're beautiful. So, if I'm so good, why don't I look like you?"
"It wasn't Erskine's serum," Steve answered immediately. "That means whatever he said about what I got doesn't make a difference for whatever crap they put in you."
Bucky scowled. "Bullshit. Where'd they get the formula from, then?" He turned his head away, wincing. "I'm sorry, Stevie. I know you mean well, but it ain't true." He gave another awful laugh. "I'm growing horns. Fucking horns, like the damn devil. 'Guess that says all you need to know, huh?"
"No it doesn't," Steve snapped. "Lots of good things have horns!"
"So I'm turning into an animal," Bucky retorted. "Not sure which is worse."
"You're still you," Steve said, desperate. "I got bigger and you…you might have horns. It's just different, that's all. It doesn't mean anything. And we cut them off anyway," he added helplessly. "They probably won't grow back."
"I will cut off the horns of all the wicked," Bucky murmured, smiling bitter and thin.
"But the horns of the righteous will be lifted up," Steve said. "Don't forget how it ends."
"I know how it ends," Bucky said.
Steve fell asleep leaning against the cot, and when he woke up to Dum Dum bellowing for him Bucky was already gone.
Bucky sauntered into the mess just as Steve and the five other Commandos had sat down to breakfast. He looked like a movie star in his dark blue jacket with his hair perfectly styled. His forehead seemed perfectly fine.
If it wasn't for the touch of wildness to the brightness in his eyes, or the dark streaks under them, Steve would have sworn nothing had happened at all. It wasn't until Bucky sprawled in the chair next to him that he saw the red at the back of his neck, where Bucky couldn't avoid his nape touching his collar.
"You okay?" Steve asked him quietly, after Bucky grinned and sassed his way through the Howlie's ribbing him for being late.
"Sure I am. Why wouldn't I be?" Bucky arched his eyebrows before he stole Steve's coffee, not a care in the world. But under the table, his booted foot pressed down on Steve's toes, hard. Steve was surprised at the pain.
"Well, normally you'd be bellyaching about how there's too little sugar in my coffee, so something has to be wrong," Steve said with mock gravity.
Everyone laughed, and Bucky slid Steve's coffee back to him. "Yeah, it's disgusting. Just like you," he said. But his smile was so relieved it hurt.
The horn buds grew back four days later, then four days after that. Then three. Then two. Bucky said they hurt growing in, and Steve already knew how much it hurt cutting them out. Bucky was in pain all the time.
Steve didn't know if whatever was happening to Bucky's skin was getting worse or not. Bucky's face and hands looked okay, and he smelled good, if muskier. Not that any of them smelled better after weeks on the move. Bucky never smelled bad, though, unlike the rest of them. Maybe Steve was prejudiced, but to him Bucky just smelled earthy, spicy and warm. But Bucky refused to undress around any of them anymore, and complained about the cold or the insects or the dirt whenever they were lucky enough to find water to wash in. He endured the teasing, ignored the concern and deflected any of their questions. Steve knew Bucky cleaned himself at night, when the others couldn't see him. He listened for him leaving camp, waited until he knew Bucky was back safe before he could sleep. Steve was certain they all suspected something was wrong, but none of them mentioned it.
They should have, Steve thought. He couldn't be the only one who knew Bucky was in pain, or who was sure he wasn't eating enough, or who doubted he slept. But the others had been prisoners too, and none of them ever wanted to talk about it. And they would never ask Bucky to tell them anything they wouldn't have shared willingly themselves.
So none of them mentioned it. They watched Bucky as day by day he withdrew a little more, became a bit more silent. They watched as the shadows deepened under his eyes and his laugh became rare and strained.
"You know I love you, right?" It'd been barely 32 hours since Steve had sliced off Bucky's horns, and he'd just finished doing it again. He hated that he'd had enough practice to be good at it. He hated that Bucky still asked him when Steve couldn't stand hurting him over and over again. But what Steve hated the most was the idea that he could even consider telling Bucky 'no' when Bucky needed him.
At least the holes he left in Bucky's scalp bled less and less each time, like his body was getting used to it. They never scarred, either. Just grew back like weeds. And then Bucky would come back to Steve to get them cut off, and Steve would have to hurt him again.
"Yeah. 'Course I do." They were in Steve's tent, lying with Bucky wrapped in Steve's arms. Steve had his nose tucked into Bucky's hair, enjoying his scent. "You think I'd let just anyone take a knife to me every couple days?"
It was supposed to be a joke, but Steve hadn't felt much like laughing in a long time. "Good. I'm glad," he said. He took a breath. "I love you. But I don't think I can do this anymore."
Bucky went still. "Oh," he said, so soft it barely nudged the air. He sat up, pulling roughly out of Steve's arms. "Finally realized I was right, huh?"
"About what?" Steve asked, a second before he realized what Bucky meant. He shoved himself upright, his hair brushing the roof of his tent. "I meant the cutting!" he hissed, "not being with you!"
It was too dark to see more than Bucky's outline, but Steve could tell when he slumped and put his hands over his eyes.
"You're not right either," Steve said, because he couldn't forget anything anymore and he understood exactly what Bucky had meant by that too. "What's happening to you has nothing to do with you being bad. Nothing. It has everything to do with Hydra using men like lab rats. You think all the men who didn't survive the experiments were evil?"
"No," Bucky said. "I think they were lucky."
"Aw, Buck." Steve put his arms around him again, his chest to Bucky's back. "Don't say that. Please, don't say that. I'm so glad you're here. I'm so happy you survived. All of us are. I couldn't—" He cut himself off before he started bawling; Bucky didn't need Steve's problems on top of his own. "I love you," he whispered. "You're the finest man I've ever known."
"Don't know if I'm a man anymore, Stevie," Bucky said.
"Of course you are! Don't talk like that! I hate it when you talk like that." Steve moved his legs so his knees bracketed Bucky's torso. He kissed the tense curve of Bucky's jaw. "You're still Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes. Pieces of bone can't change that."
"It's not just the horns," Bucky said.
Steve froze, thinking of the burned red on Bucky's skin. "What else is happening?"
Bucky lifted his hands, but his fingers just hovered over his jacket buttons, hesitating. He finally opened his collar and pulled it aside. "Touch my chest."
Steve did, pushing his hand under the neckline of Bucky's sweater and the singlet underneath.
There was fur—not just hair, fur—from the base of Bucky's neck down as far as Steve could reach. Thick, but very short, like the down on rabbit ears. It was just as soft too. He gasped, and Bucky went still. "It's okay! I didn't mean it like that. I'm surprised, is all," he said quickly. "I wasn't expecting it. But it's not bad."
Bucky stayed rigid in Steve's arms. "You don't have to live with it."
"I know." Steve pushed his hand lower. Beneath the silky fur Bucky's ribs stuck out like knives sheathed in angry wires of muscle. "I know I don't, and I'd give anything for it not to have happened to you. I'd give anything to take these…changes onto me instead. But I can't. And I'm so sorry."
"Not your fault." Bucky relaxed incrementally, until he was leaning against Steve's chest again. "I hate this. I hate it so much."
"I know," Steve repeated. "But…maybe it's not as bad as you think? It's really soft." He pushed his hand a little lower. "What color is it?" His fingertips grazed the edge of what felt like a scab. Bucky sucked air, obviously in pain. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Bucky said too quickly. He tried to squirm away but Steve wouldn't move his hand. "I said it's nothing!"
"And I know you're lying." Bucky's heart fluttered like a distressed bird under Steve's palm. "C'mon, Buck. Don't do this. Let me see. You know I need to see."
He could practically hear Bucky's jaw clench in the stony silence. "Is that an order, sir?"
Steve winced. "Do I need to make it an order?"
"No," Bucky said, after a long, miserable silence. "No."
"Thank you, Buck." Steve didn't expect an answer. Instead he grabbed his flashlight and turned it on to illuminate the inside of the tent.
Bucky looked terrible in the stark light: pale, exhausted and overly thin. His hands trembled as he undid the buttons of his jacket. His fingers seemed longer, likely from the too prominent bones. Bucky bit his lip as he finally shrugged off the jacket, then took a breath before he tugged the collar of his sweater over his head, then his singlet. They both joined his jacket on the floor of the tent. Then he sat with his shoulders square and his hands behind his back, glaring at Steve with his whole upper body on display.
He was covered in fur from his shoulders to the backs of his hands, and as far down his torso as Steve could see before it was covered in clothing. It was far more tan than the nut brown of Bucky's hair, and short enough that only the way it reflected light made it obvious it wasn't just pigment. It looked just as invitingly soft as it felt. His fingers itched to touch it again.
Without three layers of clothing to mask it, Bucky's scent was redolent of clean leather and something sweet and spicy like cloves. Steve wanted to haul him close and just breathe him in. He didn't because of the large, rough scabs on his abdomen and down both Bucky's arms, and the bitter challenge in his eyes.
"Well?" Bucky snarled, "'still think it ain't that bad?"
"What happened to your stomach and arms?" Steve reached towards Bucky's stomach, but Bucky jerked backwards before he could touch. "Was that from your clothing?"
"No," Bucky said simply. "I tried to get rid of it. Like the horns."
"What?" The scabs were huge. "You sliced your skin off?"
He shrugged. "Didn't work anyway. It just grows back faster."
"Oh my God," Steve breathed, aghast. "How many times did you try it?"
"Who gives a damn? You think want to look like this for the rest of my life?" He slapped his chest. "Like this? Horns and…and fur like a fucking animal? You think anybody'd choose that?"
"What's the alternative, then?" Steve demanded. "Flaying yourself alive?" He grabbed Bucky's shoulders. They felt like velveteen-covered iron. "Bucky, please. It's not bad, all right? It's not bad! It's strange and different and…and I know you didn't want this and I'm so, so sorry. But it's not bad. Please. Stop doing this. Stop hurting yourself. Stop hiding from us and just…."
"Just what?" Bucky snarled at him. "Just what, Steven? Accept this? Maybe I should just go and find Schmidt and ask him to take me back, huh? Why not? I'm just like him!"
"No you're not!" Steve grimaced, lowered his voice. Gabe was the only one besides the two of them awake right now, taking his watch, but that didn't mean he was out of earshot. "You are nothing like him. How many times do I need to tell you that? He tortures people and kills them. You've been protecting people and looking after them your whole life! The only reason this happened to you in the first place is 'cause you were working so hard to protect the other prisoners that you drew attention to yourself!"
"You're telling me all the Howlies lied about you?"
Bucky shrugged again, looking away. "Anyone would'a done what I did."
"Maybe. But it wasn't anyone. It was you." Steve gently squeezed Bucky's shoulders. "What's happening to you…it's not your bad becoming worse. It can't be. Because you're not bad. You're good. You're so good, Bucky."
Bucky just shook his head.
Steve took a breath, defeated. "Look. Even if you don't believe me, I can't let you keep mutilating yourself like this. We need to tell the others what's happening."
"No!" Bucky's head snapped up, his eyes wide with panic. "No, they can't see me like this!"
"They have to, Bucky. You can't keep—"
"They can't see me like this! They'll know what I am!" He grabbed Steve's wrists and used them to shove Steve away.
"Ow!" He slammed onto his back on the ground, wrists aching as Bucky jerked away from him in the narrow confines of the tent. "That hurt." Steve stared at him. "You hurt me. How did you do that?"
"I'm sorry!" Bucky scrambled out of the back of the tent and ran.
Bucky came back at dawn, acting like everything was fine. But he wouldn't touch Steve unless he absolutely had to, and when he did it was always with exquisite care, as if Steve had somehow turned back into the skinny, fragile weakling he used to be. Steve hated that, but what was even worse was the constant glint of fear in Bucky's eyes.
Steve knew intimately what it was like not to trust your own body, to go day to day waiting for the inexorable moment when it would betray you completely. He would have done anything to escape the prison of the body he'd been born into.
That was why, ultimately, Steve didn't have the heart not to help Bucky with his horns. It was something he could do, and the only way he knew that made any difference at all.
The Commandos were still moving, travelling north as they hit the Hydra facilities Steve remembered from the map in the isolation ward. They were incredibly successful, but none of their victories could suppress the constant unease twisting in Steve's gut. He kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, the next disaster to rip Bucky that much further away from him.
Bucky traded two packs of cigarettes to Dum Dum for the watch cap he never used. Bucky wore it all the time, but that made sense. It was getting increasingly cold the higher they climbed into the mountains. When Bucky started wearing his gloves, Steve was just glad to see him taking care of himself.
Nothing else changed. Bucky kept up his façade and kept his head covered, and came to Steve when everyone else was asleep and knelt so Steve could cut off his horns.
They didn't talk about it. Not even when the horns grew back every 23 hours, then 20, than 16, then 12. Neither of them talked about what would happen when they grew back too quickly for Steve to deal with. Bucky smiled and joked with the Howlies, and stayed away from their campsites for as long as he could every night, and chewed the tips of his gloves off like he was substituting for his fingernails.
The night it went to hell, Steve shouldn't even have been awake. He had first watch, but he'd just…stayed. Now it was nearly dawn and he hadn't bothered waking anyone else for their watches. They all needed the sleep more than he did, and Steve wasn't that tired anyway.
It was the nightmares, keeping him up. Though he'd been through so little compared to the others that he hated to admit it. He dreamed about them being ambushed by Hydra, or that he was back in Brooklyn, sick and weak and helpless as Bucky got beat to death in front of him. Far too often he dreamed about the isolation ward, only Bucky was dead when he got there, or died while Steve watched. Or he already had horns curving over his forehead like the Devil himself, and Steve couldn't cut them off. Bucky had to stay a monster.
It was easier not to sleep.
Steve was sitting on the log he dragged in front of the fire, watching the shrinking flames as he let them die. He definitely wasn't asleep, but deep enough in his head that his constant worry was blurred a little, soft like the light of the icy dawn. But he snapped alert the instant he heard the scuff of boots over frozen leaves.
Steve had thought Bucky was asleep, but here he was staggering out of the forest, bleeding and clutching his left hand to his chest.
"Bucky!" Steve leapt to his feet and ran to him just as he swayed and his legs gave out. Steve caught him, holding Bucky upright as they both sank to the ground. Each side of Bucky's head was streaked in red from his ears down to where his collar soaked up the blood. "Oh my God. What happened? What happened to your ears?" Steve turned his head to call the others for help, but Bucky slapped his palm over Steve's mouth. His right hand was covered in blood too.
"Don't. Please, Stevie. It's not…." His head lolled, eyes rolling before he jerked awake. "I'm okay. Jus' Stupid."
"Stupid? What do you mean?" Steve leaned Bucky's shoulder against his chest so he could turn Bucky's head. "What happened to your ears? You…. Oh, no," he whispered, realizing what he was looking at. Bucky had sliced off the tops of his ears, right above the inner shell. "Oh, no. Bucky, what did you do?"
"They were growin' pointed," Bucky rasped. His laugh wavered just short of a scream. "They were too big for the watch cap. Had to cut 'em off."
"Oh my God." Bucky still had his left hand clutched in a fist over his chest, but he didn't protest when Steve gently pulled it away. "Did you cut—" Bucky's hand wasn't in a fist. He'd cut off the last joint of all his fingers.
For a long moment all Steve could do was stare at the wreck of Bucky's hand. Then all he could do was keep from throwing up. "What did you do?" he repeated. "God in heaven, what the fuck did you do?"
Bucky held up his right, blood soaked hand for Steve to see. He remembered the thick, soft-looking hair that stopped just below his wrist. It reminded Steve of the hair horses had surrounding their hooves. Bucky's fingers were wider than they used to be, especially at the last joint. His nails were thick and rounded, like the kind you'd see on dogs. They looked sharp.
"I couldn't hide 'em anymore, Stevie," Bucky said, huge-eyed and desperate.
Bucky was incredibly strong now, too. So strong that when Steve yelled for help, even maimed as he was Bucky almost broke Steve's hold and ran.
Hell, he almost broke Steve's arm, until Steve managed to pin him in a bear hug with his chest to Bucky's back. "You're hurt, Bucky. Let them help! Bucky, please!"
Bucky fought Steve like he was Hydra, screaming in panic and rage. He bucked and kicked, slamming Steve's face with the back of his head and kicking at his shin at the same time. He wriggled free as Steve was reeling from the double onslaught.
Bucky lurched to his feet and almost stumbled right into Jim Morita.
"Whoa!" Jim reared back, arms out as Bucky looked wildly from him to Gabe to Dernier, Monty and Dum Dum, all standing in a loose semicircle around him. "We're all friends here. Right, Sarge? Don't kill us."
"What the blazes happened to you?" Monty stepped towards him, reaching for Bucky's bleeding left hand.
Bucky jerked it away. "Don't touch me!"
Steve couldn't tell if the words were a command or a warning. He got slowly to his feet, ready to jump in if Bucky took a swipe at any of them. Steve's torso was crisscrossed in red lines from Bucky's right claws. They weren't deep but they were still bleeding and they stung.
Luckily Monty got the message and retreated, hands up like Jim. "Very well. No touching. Understood." He sent Steve a silent plea over Bucky's shoulder.
"Bucky, it's okay." Bucky whirled to face him, then lost his balance and stumbled. Steve tried to help but Bucky jerked back from him too. "It's me, it's Steve. You're with me and the Howling Commandos. You know that, right?"
Bucky nodded mechanically, then looked at everyone again, recognition dawning in his eyes only to be replaced by horror. "No. Oh, no." He backed up, but tripped over his own feet and sat heavily on the ground. He clutched his left hand to his chest, but in the rising daylight there was no hiding the blood. It coated his hand to the elbow, soaking his jacket sleeve. And he looked like someone had taken a cleaver to the sides of his head.
"It's all right, Sarge," Dum Dum said. "Jimmy'll fix you right up and then we'll get the bastards who did this."
Jacques said nearly the same thing in French, but Bucky just shook his head.
"Tu ne comprends pas."
"You don't have to be afraid, Bucky." Gabe came closer, crouching so he could look Bucky in the eye. "We're your friends. No one's gonna hurt you. We just want to know what happened, so we can help."
Bucky started laughing.
It wasn't a good laugh. It was the same kind of laugh as when he told Steve his reason for cutting off half of each ear. It was laced with despair and brutal resignation. "You wanna know what happened? You want to help?" He stopped laughing, but the smile that replaced it was just as dark. "This is what happened." He held up his right hand with its fur and deformed fingers and thick animal nails.
"Holy shit!" Jim exclaimed, a beat ahead of Dum Dum. Jacques cursed loudly in French. Monty just gaped.
Gabe rocked back on his heels. "Jesus Christ. What is that?"
"It's what Hydra did to me," Bucky said with that same terrible smile. "My ears were getting pointed. So I cut the points off. An' I couldn't wear my gloves anymore, 'cause of the claws. So I cut 'em off too." He showed them his left hand. It was hard to look at, with the raw stumps and the blood. At least Steve thought the bleeding might have stopped. "Still want to be my friend, Gabe? How 'bout you, Jimmy? Monty?" He arched his eyebrows in mock curiosity. "Anyone? No?"
"None of us are going to abandon you, Bucky," Steve said.
Bucky ignored him. "Wait! You haven't even seen everything. You want to?" he stood up, swayed a moment but bared his teeth at Steve when he stepped in to help. "Come on! You want to see the rest of the freak show, don't you? Well, here it is." He couldn't use his left hand to undo the buttons of his jacket, so he dug his right claws under them and popped them off, then shrugged out of his jacket and let it drop to the ground. He couldn't get his sweater off one-handed either, so instead he grabbed his collar and ripped the cloth half way down his chest with a single, vicious yank. He did the same thing to his singlet, exposing his chest from shoulder to shoulder, then shrugged the rest of the way out of the shirts until they were bunched around his waist.
The short, soft downy fur was still there, only now it curved right up the back of Bucky's neck to the remains of his poor ears. His throat was bare, but everywhere else was covered like a pelt. The fur grew thicker and longer at his elbows, ending in fine, silky tufts.
"Not enough?" Bucky sneered, keeping up the bravado by sheer force of will. He was trembling, exhaling shivering puffs of vapor every time he breathed. He was horribly thin. Every one of them was lean and spare, wiry from the unavoidable collision of effort and privation. But Bucky looked starved. Even Steve was a little cold, wearing everything but his helmet. Bucky, shirtless and nothing but taught muscle and bone, had to be freezing.
"You don't have to do this," Steve said, daring to go closer. "You're hurt. We can deal with what Hydra did later. Let Jim look at you." He reached for him again.
Bucky shoved him away, sending him careening into Dum Dum. "No! We're not done," he snarled. "You haven't seen the best part yet. Look at this." He scooped his sweat-damp hair back from his forehead, revealing the smooth, rounded buds of his horns.
"Holy fuck. He looks like an Oni," Jim said.
"What the bloody hell's an Oni?" Monty asked him.
"Who cares?" Bucky let go of his hair and flung his arms out, wobbling a little before he regained his balance. It was as if he were drunk: Steve was intimate with that wild edge and the strain on his usual grace. But Bucky was sober, and this hard, acid anger was completely unlike him. "Who the fuck cares what the fuck an 'Oni' is?" He grinned at Jim with a rictus of sharp teeth. "It's a demon, right? Some kind of fucking devil? That what you calling me?"
"Whoa. Hey, pal. He's not calling anyone anything." Dum Dum stepped between Jim and Bucky. "We're all friends here."
"No we're not! Bucky yelled. "You're friends with Bucky! Bucky! Not this…this fucking thing I've turned into! I'm a monster! Can't you see that? Are you all fucking blind? I'm a monster!" He slapped his chest hard with both hands. "I'm a monster! I'm not Bucky anymore! I—I…."
He dropped to his knees, then his eyes rolled back. Gabe caught him before he hit the ground.
Bucky slept for nearly 24 hours.
It was actually terrifying. Steve had seen Bucky dead to the world before, but never when he'd been so far under it was impossible to wake him up. Jim had to stop Steve from trying, because he was worried Bucky would be injured if Steve kept shaking him that hard.
Steve ended up carrying Bucky in his arms, wrapped in blankets to keep him warm. Steve checked constantly to make sure Bucky was still breathing.
Jacques scouted ahead and found an abandoned farmhouse. There was nothing but scrawny, frightened chickens in the yard and the ground floor was practically gutted, but the upstairs was intact enough. The master bedroom still had a stained, dusty bed in it. Steve carried Bucky up the stairs and tucked him in like a child, then pulled up the ratty rocking chair and sat next to him, worrying and watching him sleep.
He could hear the others moving around downstairs, laying out their bedrolls and coaxing the reluctant wood stove to make some heat. No one asked Steve to help and he couldn't bring himself to leave Bucky long enough to offer. Jim brought dinner—K rations plus Steve's portion of one of the unlucky chickens—then checked on Bucky while Steve forced himself to eat food that was only marginally less disgusting because it was hot.
Bucky's pulse and breathing were steady, and when Jim carefully removed the bandage on Bucky's left hand, the stumps of his fingers already looked weeks old. There was a tiny bump in the center of each one.
His fingers were growing back, just like his horns. Looking at it made Steve's gut churn around the detestable rations in a mix of relief and sympathetic horror.
He had to swallow several times before he could speak. "He, uh…I think he's healing faster than me."
Jim arched an eyebrow at him. "You gonna slice something off to check?"
"No. But…." Steve shrugged. "It seems faster."
"Yeah, well." Jim grimaced. "Doubt he'll be thrilled about that."
"Yeah," Steve sighed. He pushed the unruly hair back from Bucky's forehead. His hair seemed thicker too, soft and glossy where it wasn't covered in blood. The horn buds were larger, pushing out of his scalp. "He's so scared of what's happening to him."
"No shit. Wouldn't you be?"
One of Bucky's feet had slipped out from underneath the blanket. Jim casually pushed it back under again. Bucky didn't even twitch. His toes had grown longer and wider, just like his fingers. He'd poked holes through his socks. He must've been in agony, walking with his toes mashed into the front of his boots, but he'd acted like nothing was wrong. Gabe was downstairs trying to rig up a pair of boots that would actually fit him.
"I probably would," Steve admitted. Getting the serum was the most painful thing he'd ever experienced, but the results were pretty damn pleasant. He still got startled by his new size sometimes, still broke things because he didn't remember his strength. But he also still looked normal, if on the large side. He still looked completely human.
Bucky's face, beneath his hair and the horns, was too thin but just as beautiful as it always was. His body was just as perfectly formed. To Steve, he was gorgeous like this, like a forest spirit or ancient god come to life. Steve couldn't imagine how anyone could look at him and see anything else.
But none of that changed how Bucky didn't look human anymore.
"Maybe Stark can figure something out," Jim offered. "He helped you get all Errol Flynned-up, right?"
Steve managed to find a smirk somewhere. "I'm hardly Errol Flynn."
Jim patted him on the back. "No kidding. But Stark's no dummy either. If anyone can fix this, he can."
"Sure," Steve murmured. "If anyone can." He ran his fingers through his own hair, resisted the urge to check Bucky's pulse one more time. "He's really just sleeping, right?"
"'Far as I can tell, yeah." Jim gave him one of his spread-handed shrugs. "I don't know how much he's been sleeping, but he sure as hell hasn't been eating enough. And, uh…." He grimaced again. "All that new shit he's growing's gotta be taking a lot out of him. Once he's slept and got some food in him, he'll probably be fine." He tilted his head. "Well, as fine as he can be, I guess."
"Right." Steve gave in to his desire to touch Bucky again, dragging his fingertips over the nascent horns. "I can't help feeling like this is my fault."
Jim frowned at him. "How the fuck is this your fault?"
"Erskine—the scientist who developed the serum—was forced by Schmidt to use it on him first, when it wasn't ready. Schmidt's obsessed with the idea of an Aryan master race. Told me we'd both left humanity behind when we changed." Steve touched the top of Bucky's mutilated left ear. It'd scabbed over like his fingers, with the missing part also growing back. "Schmidt knew Erskine's serum worked on me. What's happening to Bucky is 'cause he was trying to reproduce it."
Jim went from frowning to gaping. "So…you're saying that if the serum hadn't worked, Bucky would be okay now? Are you out of your fucking mind?" He shook his head like Steve's idiocy was so baffling he had no clue how to deal with it. "Either he would've been worked to death like the rest of us, or they would've dragged him off to pump some other shitty serum into him. Hate to tell you this, Ace, but what happened to him doesn't have a goddamn thing to do with you."
Steve winced, face heating. He pulled his hand away and put both of them on his belt, feeling overly exposed with his embarrassment. "I guess, when you put it like that."
Jim's expression conveyed the, No shit. Really? without him having to say a damn thing. Steve gave him a weak smile in acknowledgement. "Thanks, Jimmy."
Jim smacked him on the shoulder a couple times. "Anytime, Cap." He looked down at Bucky, mouth flattening unhappily, then shook his head. "Poor dumb fuck didn't deserve any of this."
"No," Steve said quietly. "He really didn't." He swallowed. "What if Howard can't fix him?"
"Then we'll make Zola do it, after we capture the son of a bitch," Jim said, like it was just that easy.
Bucky woke up screaming just as the long, cold night drained into the bleak grey of dawn.
"Bucky! Bucky, it's okay! You're safe. You're safe. It's me, it's Steve!" Steve tried to hold him without restraining him, terrified Bucky would hurt himself in his panic. Bucky struggled as if he were still a prisoner of Hydra, screaming like a soul in hell.
"No! No! Let me go! Don't you touch me, you fucks—!" He kicked out, shredding the blanket with his claws and swiping Steve's thigh, then headbutted Steve in the face. His horns might have been velvet soft and new, but beneath the velvet was bone like ingots of iron. It was like getting brained by a sledgehammer.
The world blurred black, then Steve blinked and he was on the floor. Bucky was kneeling next to him, his face ashen and his hands hovering over Steve like he wanted to touch but didn't dare.
"I'm sorry! Oh, God, Steve. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. What did I do?"
"S'okay, Buck," Steve tried, but his tongue felt sloppy and he barely managed to get that much past his teeth when the rest of the Howlies rushed into the small room.
Bucky immediately scrambled away from Steve until he was crouched with his back against the far wall. The light leaking through the broken shutters turned him to shadow, like some unearthly night creature that strayed too far into the world of men.
"What happened?" Gabe asked, bewildered as the rest of them, just as Dum Dum snarled at Bucky: "What the hell did you do?"
"It was an accident!" Steve said. He pushed himself upright, letting Jim help because he still felt woozy and didn't want to keel over. "It was an accident, Bucky. You had a nightmare and I got in the way, that's all. I'm fine, it's not your fault," he added, because he could practically see the self-loathing spinning like terrible clockwork behind Bucky's eyes. "It was a nightmare," he told the rest of them. "All of you, stand down. He wasn't trying to hurt me."
Dum Dum backed up a couple steps. "You okay, Cap?"
"Yeah. I'm fine." Steve nodded, never taking his eyes off Bucky. "It's okay, Buck," he said to him. "I know you weren't trying to hurt me."
Bucky just shook his head mutely, staring at his hands. The claws of his right hand were crusted with Steve's blood. Steve had washed the blood off Bucky while he slept, and it was easy to see that his fingers had almost grown back.
Bucky tentatively touched his right ear, tracing the delicate, regrown point with the pads of his fingers, then touched his forehead with even more trepidation. His horns had grown overnight. They were each almost an inch long now, peeking through his bangs.
"Cut them off," Bucky said. Then, louder: "Cut them off! Cut them off!"
"Take it easy. It's all right," Gabe said. "We've all seen 'em already. You showed us, remember?"
Jacques nodded vigorously. "Yes. We have seen."
"Oh, God." Bucky curled away from them, hands still covering his horns like a child trying to hide. "Go away. Please. Go away. Leave me alone."
"Sorry, no can do, pal," Jim said. "Like Cap said. You're one of us. We ain't leaving you."
"I want you to!" Bucky spat. "Go away! Get the fuck away from me!"
"You think we're going to just up and leave you here 'cause you're funny lookin'?" Dum Dum asked.
"He thinks he's evil, because of how he looks," Steve explained. "But it's not true."
"Shut up!" Bucky shouted. "I look like the fucking devil! This is my worse, all right? When are you gonna get that through your thick skull? This is my worse! This is my worse!" He hit the wall with his fist; Steve heard the wood crack.
"What 'worse'?" Monty looked between Bucky and Steve, bewildered. "What on Earth are you talking about?"
"The scientist who made the serum told me it worked like that," Steve said. "It made the good parts of you better and the bad parts worse. Schmidt got worse."
"No fucking kidding," Jim said.
"So, you're saying this is the bad in you getting worse, Sarge? The horns and fur and all that shit?" Gabe asked.
Bucky swallowed. "Go away. Before I do something to you too."
"You didn't do anything to me!" Steve exclaimed. "For God's sake, Bucky! You were having a fucking nightmare! Cut yourself some god damned slack!"
"Forgive me, but I still don't entirely understand," Monty said. "You're truly saying that your appearance is a direct result of the serum corrupting your soul? You'll forgive me, but that seems preposterous."
"It's not corrupting me," Bucky said. "It's just amplifying what was already there."
"Okay…." Jim spread his hands. "Except for how you're not evil."
"Oh, that's rich, coming from you," Bucky snarled. "You called me a fucking demon just this morning."
"Actually it was yesterday, Ace," Jim retorted easily. "And I never said you were an Oni. Just that you looked like one."
"What's the fucking difference?"
"Well, for starters you ain't fucking Japanese," Jim said. "Second, Oni aren't all bad either. They're big, strong, ugly sons of bitches with horns and claws, and some of 'em do all the regular monster shit like eating people or causing plagues or crap like that. But some of them are invoked to drive away evil spirits."
Bucky sniffed. "So? I ain't fucking Japanese."
Jim rolled his eyes. "So, they're protectors, you damn gaijin meathead. And what the fuck else have you been doing for this entire fucking war?"
"Perishing of hunger, apparently," Monty murmured.
"I've been doing my goddamn job. So what?" Bucky looked miserable and angry, but at least he wasn't afraid anymore. Steve was thrilled to take anything that wasn't fear.
"I think it's fair to say you're job's been protecting us," Gabe said. "And you've been pretty good at it."
"There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple; And God will grow no talons at his heels, Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls," Monty said, then cleared his throat when the others frowned at him in confusion. "Wilfred Owen. A poet who died in the Great War. It seemed apt."
"I know who wrote that," Bucky said. "It's just a poem."
"Well, you got the claws all right," Jim said. "And antlers. Or whatever the fuck those things on your head are gonna be."
"Built-in weapons," Dum Dum said.
"Because you're a protector, Bucky," Steve said.
Bucky swallowed again. "You're the protector, Steve," he said quietly. "Not me. I kill people."
"So do I," Steve said. "We all have. Sometimes that's what it takes."
"We're protecting the entire world," Gabe said. "We can't do it without bloodshed."
"You've also saved our lives more than I care to count," Monty added.
Bucky shrugged then touched his horns again, as if their presence alone undid every good thing he might have done.
"Besides." Dum Dum made a broad gesture that took in all of Bucky's hunched form. "You're a hell of a lot better looking than Schmidt."
Jacques nodded and said something in vehement French that Steve didn't really catch, but made Gabe laugh.
Bucky didn't even smile. "Je suis sûr que le Diable sent bon aussi."
Gabe laughed again, though Steve was sure Bucky hadn't made a joke.
"No idea what Frenchy said there," Dum Dum put in jovially, "but we're all still kicking, so I'm going to agree with the limey." He indicated Monty with a jab of his chin, then put his hands on his hips. "So why don't you stop acting like a kicked dog and get up?"
"And eat something, for God's sake," Monty said.
Bucky glared at them both, but he slowly got up, padded unsteadily back to the bed and shakily sat down. He put his hands in his lap, looking at the left one. "If I don't eat, the horns don't grow as fast," he said softly, flexing his new fingers. "Or anything else."
Steve found that hard to believe, considering how the horns were already growing back nearly faster than Steve could cut them off. He had the horrible thought that maybe not eating was Bucky's way of convincing himself he had some control over what was happening to him. "You can't do that anymore, Buck. You need to eat. And you can't cut yourself anymore either. That's an order," he added to Bucky's blackening expression. "I need my second in command healthy. I don't give a damn what you look like."
Dum Dum snorted. "Colonel Phillips might."
Bucky's eyes widened and that much more color left his face. Steve winced internally. He hadn't let himself think about what might—what would, most likely—happen to Bucky once they were back in camp. Looked like Bucky hadn't either.
"The SSR isn't like Hydra, Buck. You know that. They wouldn't do anything like that to you."
"Like they wouldn't've made you a lab rat, if you hadn't starred in Brandt's freak show first?" Bucky snapped. Steve didn't miss the tremor at the end of it, or how his hands were slowly curing into fists. "You really think Phillips ain't gonna take one look at me and toss me in the slammer?" He looked down at his new fingers again. "Hell, they'll just stuff me in a fucking mattress cover."
Kill him, he meant. "He won't do that!" Steve said, horrified. "No one's going to lock you up or hurt you! This isn't your fault!"
Bucky just looked at him, blank resignation in his eyes. "He ain't gonna give a damn, Stevie. Not when I look like this."
"Come on, Sarge. Buck up, for fuck's sake," Jim said. "We all know the Colonel's going to take one look at you and hit the fucking roof." He looked at Steve. "But that doesn't matter, right? 'Cause Howard'll fix this before Phillips gets his grubby paws on him."
"Damn straight," Steve said.
"Why the hell do you think Howard's gonna be able to fix this?" Bucky demanded. "He's a goddamn engineer. S'not like I got a robot arm or something."
"He helped Erskine perfect the serum they used on me," Steve said. "And he still has Erskine's notes."
"Uh huh." Bucky gave him a flat, angry stare. "If he's so great, how come there's still only one of you?"
"Who cares for Stark?" Jacques gave a typical Gallic shrug. "We will have Zola."
"Exactly!" Jim pointed at Jacques, beaming. "Zola did this shit to the Sarge, so we'll make him undo it. Easy."
The leftover blood in Bucky's face drained completely. "No," he said. "Not Zola. He's not getting near me. You hear that? He's not fucking touching me. I'll kill him!"
"Okay, okay. We won't let him near you, Buck. That's fine," Steve said. It wasn't fine at all; not if Zola might be the only one who could make Bucky normal again. But Bucky's fists were clenched so hard they shook with the strain. He was seemingly unaware he'd driven his claws into his palms. His eyes were huge and liquid and he was all but panting with fear. Steve had never seen him this afraid. "You won't even have to see him, all right? I can take another Howlie on the train mission." He was completely unsurprised when the others nodded in agreement.
Bucky shook his head. "I wanna fucking see him. I want to look him in the eyes so he knows exactly who took him down." He swallowed. "But he ain't touching me."
"Don't worry, Sarge," Gabe said. "He won't get near you. Cap and I will make sure of it."
Steve nodded, then put his hand on Bucky's shoulder. He smiled at him when Bucky looked up, trying to convey the depths of everything he felt for him. "No one is going to hurt you ever again, Buck. I promise."
Bucky's returned smile was wan, but his hands relaxed, leaving pools of red on his palms. Steve wanted to kiss his wounds better. Wanted to do a hell of a lot more than that, actually, but it had been weeks since Bucky had allowed anything more than this kind of sparse, sterile contact. Steve missed him.
Bucky looked away.
Monty cleared his throat and Steve yanked his hand back.
"I expect you could use some more rest, and a decent meal, rather than our Captain mooning over you," Monty said to Bucky. Steve was almost certain it was a joke and not an actual admonishment, but he stepped farther from the bed anyway.
Bucky nodded. He did still look peaked and like he'd barely slept. "You're not wrong." He looked at all of them. "Thanks," he said seriously. "For not…" He lifted his right hand, crooking his fingers to show the claws. He shrugged and a corner of his mouth quirked in a tiny, awkward smile. "Having kittens about this."
"Well, I don't know about these assholes, but I sure as fuck had kittens when I saw you bleeding like a stuck pig and figured you'd had your ticket punched," Jim said. "Next to that, who gives a rat's ass if you're growing fucking horns?"
"Rather have you funny lookin' than dead," Dum Dum added.
"Nous sommes tous des putains monstres," Jacques said. "Ceci s'accorde exactement avec toi."
That got a sad little twitch that was almost a smirk. "Ouais."
Gabe grinned at him. "Besides, you always were boneheaded, so this really isn't much of a change."
"Fuck off," Bucky said. But he smiled.
Steve stayed with Bucky while he wolfed down the K rations Dum Dum brought up, caught somewhere between bemusement and guilt that Bucky had allowed himself to get so hungry he could bolt down food that they all agreed at best was barely better than nothing. Bucky had always been good at hiding whether or not he was eating well, something he'd perfected long before the war when he'd give Steve half his lunch and insisted he was full. Steve should have known that when Bucky claimed he was going to 'hunt' he was really going to maim himself. He should have realized when Bucky kept saying he'd 'eat later' that he wasn't going to eat at all.
But Steve wasn't sickly or poor anymore, and most of the time the Commandos had enough food. There was no reason for Bucky to do without for the sake of anyone else. So Steve had never imagined he would.
Of course, Steve never imagined that Bucky would cut off parts of his own body either.
"I meant what I said before, how no one's cutting anything off you again."
Bucky grunted, barely glancing up from his food. He didn't answer.
"You're not going to starve yourself either, or not sleep," Steve went on. That got another grunt. "I'm serious. I know you want to stop what's happening to you, but it's not working. You're just hurting yourself." That didn't even get acknowledged. Steve took a breath, trying to control his frustration. "If you don't stop, I'm going to have to recommend that you don't come on missions."
There was a tiny pause before Bucky finished scraping the last of his meal off the cracked ceramic plate. "You won't do that," he said. His tone was casual, light, but he still wouldn't look up. "If you send me back to England you know what they'll do to me." He touched his horns with his left hand, running his unfinished fingertips over the velvet like he was checking how much they'd grown. Steve couldn't tell if they were longer, but they were already too large to hide.
"The SSR isn't Hydra," Steve said again, though his guts went icy just thinking about it: Bucky at Colonel Phillip's mercy, with only Peggy present to help him. Whatever clout Steve had as Captain America wouldn't make a damn bit of difference against the needs of the War Effort. Hell, he'd escaped an Alamogordo lab by the skin of his teeth himself, and he didn't look like….
Well, he didn't look like Bucky did.
"I know they're not Hydra," Bucky said. He carefully put his plate on the floor just under the bed, then crossed his arms and finally looked at Steve. "We both know that won't mean a fucking thing."
"Yes it will," Steve said. "I'll make it mean something. We all will." He gave into the urge that had dogged him since before Bucky woke up, and crouched so he could take him into his arms. He hugged his fiercely, burying his face in the curve where his neck met his shoulder. "I swear I will never let anyone hurt you again."
Bucky placed his arms tentatively on Steve's back, then relaxed and hugged him just as tightly. "Don't make promises you can't keep."
Bucky smirked, but kissed the nape of Steve's neck. "Fucking liar. You promise shit you can't do all the time."
Steve smirked as well. "It's not my fault if the world can't live up to my expectations." He kissed the corner of Bucky's jaw. "I promise I will do everything I can to keep you safe," he said somberly. He kissed Bucky's cheek. "I swear I will protect you to the last breath in my body."
"Don't swear that!" Bucky pushed away from him, glaring. "You think I want you to die for me?"
"Do you think I want to live without you?"
Bucky stared at him. "Aw, fuck, Stevie." He cupped Steve's face and kissed him.
Steve kept the groan locked in his throat, did his best to stay silent as he melted into the kiss, laving the inside of Bucky's mouth. He put his hands on the Back of Bucky's neck, caressing the downy fur with his fingers. Bucky made a tiny, involuntary sound of pleasure and slid his hands around Steve's back. There were too many layers of clothes between them, but Steve didn't want to let go to take anything off.
Bucky was the first to pull back, panting against Steve's mouth. "We…we shouldn't…."
"We'll be quiet," Steve murmured. He ran his palms down Bucky's back to his tailbone. "You're so soft. And God, you smell so good." He nosed the spot just beneath Bucky's ear, inhaling. "You're filthy. How come you smell so good?" He kissed Bucky again, maneuvering their bodies so he could lay Bucky back down on the bed then straddle him. The bed creaked under their combined weight but held.
Steve sat back on his heels, running his hands over Bucky's bare chest down his arms and back up again. His palms tingled, almost too much of a good thing. Bucky watched him silently, his eyes hooded and dark. His chest rose and fell in quick but steady rhythm, as he breathed through his parted, kiss-swollen lips.
"You're so beautiful," Steve said before he could censor himself.
Bucky turned his head and closed his eyes.
"I mean it," Steve said. "I know…I know you think you don't, or that I'm just being nice or something. But I'm not. You look…." He took a breath, frustrated at his own inability to explain. "Strong." He bent to kiss the hard, angry point at the back of Bucky's jaw. "Powerful." He kissed the skin just behind it, under Bucky's ear. "Perfect," he said softly, then kissed the tendon of Bucky's neck and nuzzled the soft, soft fur there. "I love you. I will always love you." He kissed the corner of Bucky's mouth, murmuring his gratitude when Bucky turned his head and opened his lips for him.
Steve kept kissing Bucky as he shifted his weight so he could run his hand over the smooth rise of Bucky's ribs then down the center of his abdomen. The awful scabs were long gone, no sign they'd ever existed. Steve hoped Bucky's ears and hand would heal that perfectly. The fur covering him was just as enticingly short and soft here as everywhere else, more like a dog or cat than a human. Steve slid his hand lower—
Bucky pushed Steve off him and sat up.
Steve pulled away immediately, standing to give him space. "Bucky? What's wrong?"
Bucky rubbed his face with his good hand. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, his body completely turned away. "Nothing. I'm just tired."
"Bullshit." Steve sat next to him. They were close enough that their sides touched, but when Steve put his arm around Bucky's shoulders, Bucky went so tense that Steve put his hands in his lap instead. "What's wrong?"
Bucky kept his head down, picking at the stubs of his new claws. "I'm not the same anymore."
"I know," Steve said. "The fact your body's different now doesn't matter to me."
Bucky didn't look up. "It matters to me."
"I wish it didn't."
"Yeah. Well." Bucky shrugged. "If wishes were horses, right?" He let out a breath, scrubbed at his eyes with his good hand. "You can't know what it's like, waking up one day and everything about you is just…wrong."
"You think I can't?" The incredulity in Steve's voice finally made Bucky look at him. "Bucky, less than five minutes after I got out of Stark's Vita-Ray machine I was chasing a Hydra operative. I fell through a fucking store window because my center of balance was so messed up." His mouth quirked in something that wasn't really amusement. "I'm pretty sure the only reason I got the bastard is that I was so goddamn jazzed from just being able to breathe that I didn't care I was wobbling all over the place like a drunk, three-legged horse." He indicated his own body with a quick swipe of his hand. "I still wake up thinking I'm a tiny weakling half the time. It's disorienting as hell when I get out of bed and everything's too small."
"You got the body you always should've had," Bucky said. Steve heard the fondness in his voice. "To go with your big, stupid heart."
"Maybe." Steve smiled at him. "Or maybe I just got lucky and didn't end up with a red skull."
Bucky scowled. "That wasn't luck. That was you bein' you. Being too good for what happened to Schmidt to happen to you. If it was luck I wouldn't look like this."
Steve frowned. "That's not true. The serum made you better, not worse. We all said it. You're a protector, Buck. That's your Good, being a protector. The serum took that and made it better."
"I'm a monster, Steve!" Bucky rocketed to his feet, glaring at Steve with his fists clenched. "I'm a fucking monster! Are you all blind? How can any of you look at me and think this is good?"
Steve stood up as well. "Well, maybe if you stopped starving yourself and cutting pieces off—!"
"You helped me!"
"Because I didn't know what else to do!" Steve shouted. "Because I didn't know what else to do," he repeated more quietly. "You were so…." He ran his fingers through his hair, left his hand on the back of his neck. "I didn't know what else to do."
"I didn't want anyone to see me," Bucky said. He looked down at his long, wide feet, flexing his clawed toes. They left small trenches in the wood floor. "Fucked that up pretty spectacularly."
"I'm glad the others know." Steve put his hand on Bucky's shoulder. "They're not afraid of you. You're still our sergeant."
"Sure. Right." Bucky gestured at his forehead, where the growing horns were visible through his messy bangs. "And when these finish growing? Still think they'll want me to be their sergeant then?"
"I know they will. They'll keep trusting you. Same as I do." Steve tapped the center of Bucky's chest. "They know who you are in your heart, even if you don't."
Bucky put his hand over Steve's, but he just held it. "I don't know what I am anymore."
"I do," Steve said. He turned his hand in Bucky's, intertwining their fingers. "We all do. You're not alone, Buck. Not with any of this. I'm right here. So are the other Howlies. We're all with you."
"You're all a bunch of idiots." He'd said that about his friends back when they'd all agreed to be part of Steve's team. His smile now was the same as it was then: real, but sad and fleeting. "Even if Howard can fix me, Phillips isn't gonna let him."
"Sure he will. 'Cause if they can undo what Zola did, it means they'll be able to redo it, right?" Steve grinned. "And besides, no one wants to disappoint Captain America."
"Aw, Phillips is a hard ass. He's not gonna be affected by your sad baby blues."
It was said as a joke, but all Steve heard was the underlying fear. "Then we'll run away together. Fight the Nazis on our own. Become legends. I mean it, Buck," he added soberly when Bucky barely glanced at him, "We'll run if we have to. I'm not going to let anything happen to you."
Bucky's expression darkened again. "I'm not letting you give up your life for me."
"And I'm not giving you a choice," Steve said. "I'm with you 'til the end of the line, pal. Remember saying that to me? You think I could do any less?"
"I'm thinking at least one of us should get what they want," Bucky said.
"I think both of us can get what we want," Steve retorted. "I know you want me. And I want you."
"That's 'cause you got low standards."
Steve laughed, but he could tell Bucky meant it.
Things didn't get better.
Sure, Bucky's hand and ears healed, and he started eating again—ravenously, in fact, like his body was trying to make up for weeks of privation in days—and he stopped hurting himself, or coming to Steve so Steve could hurt him instead.
But things didn't get better. Bucky continued to withdraw from them. He didn't talk much. Kept touching his horns the way people prod sore teeth. And every time he did he looked more and more lost.
He would vanish into the forest as soon as they broke camp in the morning, and not return until they'd stopped walking to set up camp for the night. More often than not he brought back food: Duck; rabbits; quail; sometimes he dragged in a deer. The extra meat was always welcome, but Bucky never seemed happy about providing it. The one time Dum Dum asked him why he was suddenly such a good hunter, Bucky said it was because the animals had stopped being afraid of him.
Every so often Bucky would come back with blood on him but nothing in his hands. Those were the only times he looked happy anymore: when he'd found a Hydra patrol and killed all of them.
And he kept changing. His fur got a little thicker, and the tan color darkened to a reddish hue. His ears grew into exquisite, softly furred and angled points that stretched at least an inch beyond what was normal. His sleeves didn't quite reach past his wrists. And his horns….
Bucky's horns had grown nearly three inches just a couple days after he stopped cutting them. They were golden brown, ribbed and already curving back towards his ears. Impossible to hide under anything.
Gabe had managed to rig up boots that fit him by using a couple of ammunition bags to extend out the toes, and they worked all right. But the way Bucky stared at them for a moment every time he put them on or took them off broke Steve's heart. Same with his gloves, which he wore without the fingertips to make room for his claws. Or Bucky's expression when he gave Dum Dum his watch cap back, because he couldn't use it anymore. As if every change he was forced to accept to accommodate his body was another step farther from being good, or worthy, or human.
Steve couldn't understand it. He hadn't been lying when he told Bucky he was beautiful, powerful and perfect. He drew Bucky from memory: studies of his ears, his claws, the magnificent horns jutting from his forehead. He drew of Bucky as a knight, an angel, a mythical warrior come to defend them all. They were surreptitious, furtive sketches he hid from everyone.
Steve knew Bucky would find them grotesque, and the others would be baffled at Steve's interest in something that they all agreed at best must never be permanent. They weren't scared of Bucky, but they didn't accept what he'd become either. This was a violation that had been forced on him, not a gift.
Some nights, alone in front of the fire or in his tent while he hoped Bucky would come to him, he'd imagine that he'd been reborn from the Vita-Ray machine like that: with claws and pointed ears and fur and horns. He doubted anyone would've wanted Private Rogers to shill war bonds for them if he looked like that. He probably wouldn't have been sent to the front either, at least not by the army. But he was sure he would've been strong enough, frightening enough, to get away from Brandt and Phillips and the SSR. He would've got to Europe on his own, somehow. Rescued Bucky or found him before he was even captured.
Steve was used to being weak, dismissed, objectified. Before the war he was overlooked by almost everyone. After the serum he was looked at as a symbol, not a man. Maybe it was because he was already so familiar with barely being considered a person, that the idea of being thought of as a monster held no fear for him. How many years had he longed for that kind of power—for any power—to fight off the bullies or protect the ones he cared about? How many times had he been cornered and bleeding, where he wouldn't have welcomed a set of claws? Horns would've been hardly more of an aberration than this supposedly perfect body he scarcely recognized half the time.
For Steve, he couldn't see what happened to Bucky as anything less than a gift. But he knew he was the only one who did.
Winter descended more heavily as they advanced north. The forests grew sparser, the ground and every tree covered in lush, thick snow. It was brutally cold, even out of the wind.
They were in their tent. Steve had made everyone stop when it got dark because the air felt like ice and if he was uncomfortable the others were suffering. He didn't understand why it wasn't Bucky who made the call, since he'd been walking with them for once instead of out on one of his constant patrols. Bucky still took responsibility for the security and comfort of the men, just like he'd looked after Steve before the war. It came to him as naturally as breathing. But this time when Steve ordered a halt, Bucky just looked confused. When they were in their tent and Bucky took his jacket off, Steve understood why.
Bucky only had his singlet on under his jacket, and it was damp with sweat from neckline to hem. The exertion of carrying their packs while walking through the shin-deep snow kept them all warm to an extent, but not hot. Even Steve had been shivering by the time they made camp, and Jim's teeth were chattering.
"Where's your sweater?" Steve asked, astonished. "Did you lose it? Aren't you cold?"
"Nope." Bucky lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "It's in my pack. I'll give it to Jim tomorrow. He's a little guy, but I didn't realize he was feeling the cold that badly. 'Seemed okay out, you know?"
"It's freezing out there!" Steve put his hand on Bucky's forehead. "Do you have a fever? Are you sick? Why didn't you say anything?"
Bucky's skin was very, very warm, but he just made a face and pulled back. "I'm fine. I'm just not cold." He grimaced and looked away, rubbing one of his horns. They were thick and sturdy now, curving like a ram's on either side of his head. In another week or so they'd probably be big enough to circle each ear. Bucky's hair was growing around them, falling thick and sleek over his forehead. They'd all gotten scruffier as the weeks dragged on, but Bucky's hair was already long enough to fall in his eyes. "I don't feel the cold anymore. That's why I stopped wearing my gloves and boots."
"What?" Steve automatically looked at Bucky's feet, though of course he'd already seen them bare. He'd just assumed that Bucky had left his boots outside his tent. "Do you want to get frostbite?"
"I'm not gonna get frostbite! I'm not cold!" Bucky repeated angrily. "They're too hot, and the boots are still too small. My claws keep catching in 'em, so I took them off, that's all. I didn't lose them or anything like that. I was going to give them back to Gabe. Let him do something useful with them."
"Oh. Well, I'm glad you're not cold," Steve said, because he couldn't think of anything else.
Bucky just shrugged again. He was sitting cross-legged with his hands in his lap, claws curled away from him. Steve took Bucky's nearer hand in both of his, tugging Bucky's arm so his hand rested on Steve's thigh. Steve ran his fingertips over Bucky's claws, testing the points. Bucky watched him playing with his fingers, face expressionless.
"Do these hurt?" Steve asked him.
Bucky shook his head. "Not really. The…the fur growing in, that was the worst. The rest wasn't too bad." He curled his fingers around the horn on the left side of his head, tugging a little. His head followed his horn, bending towards his shoulder. "These fucking things give me headaches all the damn time. But I guess I'm used to it. I don't really notice it much anymore."
"I'm sorry," Steve said.
Bucky snorted. "Yeah, well. So'm I." He left his ankles crossed but lifted his knees to rest a forearm on them, letting Steve keep holding his other hand. "Guess it's what I deserve, though."
Steve let out a deep, frustrated breath. They'd had this argument so many times. "You're not evil, Buck. You're a protector."
"So you keep telling me."
"Because you never believe it!"
Bucky didn't answer that. "My jacket doesn't fit so well anymore," he said instead, voice low like this was a confession. "The shoulders are too tight. And…." He grimaced in that way he had that was almost a smile, as if whatever he was about to say was so awful it was funny. "And it's a little short. The hem's too high and the sleeves don't reach my wrists."
"I was wondering about that," Steve said neutrally. He kept playing with Bucky's hand, tracing shapes with his own blunter nails over Bucky's palm. Bucky's hands were the few places still left on him not covered with the short, soft fur. "You're broader and taller than you were." Bucky would be Steve's size soon, if he wasn't already.
"Yup. I'm a regular fucking Frankenstein." He smirked humorlessly. "All I need now are the fucking villagers with the pitchforks and torches."
"Frankenstein was the scientist," Steve said. "His creation was named Adam. And you're not a monster anyway."
Bucky didn't answer that either. He'd stopped arguing whenever Steve insisted he was good, but only because now he wouldn't even acknowledge the possibility. Steve missed the arguments.
Bucky watched Steve holding his hand. "Do you suppose they'll even tell my parents what happened to me?'
Steve went still. "What do you mean?"
"We both knew what'll happen to me as soon as we bring Zola back," Bucky said, like Steve was being dense on purpose. "This is my last mission, Steve. No way Phillips is letting me go once he gets his mitts on me."
"Yes he will."
"No he won't!" Bucky yanked his hand away from Steve, scratching a small, bloody groove along the pad of his middle finger. "How are you gonna stop it, huh? You really think he'll give a damn what you want when he's got a bona-fined monster to ship to Alamogordo? I'm not you. No one outside the Howlies is gonna give a shit what happens to me. I'm dead! Soon as we deliver Zola, I'm dead. I'm living on borrowed time and you know it!"
"I don't know that," Steve said, voice tight with controlled anger. "I told you, I won't let anything happen to you. I'll keep you safe."
"You can't!" Bucky shouted it so loudly that Steve flinched. "You keep thinkin' that you can get whatever you want if you just fight hard enough. But you can't. This isn't a back alley, Steve. This is war. And all that matters in war is winning. No one gives a shit about what happens to the poor, dumb fucks at the front. Maybe if you'd spent more time fightin' than prancin' around in tights you'd understand that."
That stung like hell, but that was exactly what Bucky intended, so Steve just clenched his jaw and swallowed the anger down. "If you're that certain, then don't come back with us. Go A.W.O.L."
"Are you out of your fucking mind?" Bucky demanded. "You really think I'd run away? Let Phillips tell my old man his son's a damn coward? And you really think they'll just let me fuck off and not give a shit?"
"Fine. Then we'll tell them you died," Steve grit out. "No one's going to waste time trying to find your body, since this is war."
Bucky opened his mouth then shut it again. "You think that'll work?" He sounded hopeful and horrified at the same time. "What would you say? Why won't you have my body?"
Steve shrugged. "Say you got…." He swallowed. "That you got vaporized, like some of the soldiers did at the factory." Just imagining it made him ill.
Bucky nodded eagerly. "Yeah, yeah—tell 'em there's nothing left of me. That way no one has to know about me. And…." His lips thinned, eyes welling. "And my parents can think I died a hero. That…that'll be nice for them. Something to tell people if they ask what happened."
"I think they'd care a lot more about you being dead than whether they have a good story, Buck." Steve had regretted suggesting this plan almost immediately, but Bucky being so taken with the idea made it somehow worse. "They'll be really upset, Buck."
"They'll get over it," Bucky said dismissively, but he looked away and wiped his eyes. "It'll be better than knowing their son's a monster."
"You're not a monster."
Bucky's smile was all teeth. "Sure. 'Cause I'm dead."
In the end, of course, Steve didn't have to lie.
He didn't tell the truth, either. Not all of it. He faithfully reported how he and Bucky had entered one of the freight cars of Zola's train, how they got separated and how Bucky had been blown out of the blasted-open car, because he chose to protect Steve instead of himself.
What Steve didn't say, what he'd never tell anyone, was how the Hydra soldiers concentrated their fire on Bucky, not Steve. Or how one of the soldiers actually cried out in fear when he saw him.
Or that before he fell, Bucky had grabbed Steve's hand.
He was at least Steve's height by the time they were in position to meet Zola's train. He'd stopped wearing his jacket because it was uncomfortably small and he insisted he didn't feel the cold anyway. He finished the long trek into the mountains wearing nothing but one of Steve's tee-shirts and a pair of pants he borrowed from Dum Dum. His horns were glorious, circling each pointed ear and ending at his cheekbones.
Zola's thugs were terrified of him, but he died protecting Steve.
Steve yelled his name; climbed out onto the wreckage of the freight car; told him to hold on, to grab his hand. And Bucky did.
He slapped his long, clawed fingers around Steve's wrist, let go of the rattling handle and swung into the air. Steve groaned at the weight but kept his hand around Bucky's wrist, straining to get him back inside.
Bucky got his left hand around Steve's wrist too, trying to use his feet to gain purchase on the metal. His claws pierced the leather of Steve's glove, dug pits in his arm that became gouges as Bucky slipped, shredding Steve's flesh to the bone.
Steve's cry of pain was sucked away by the wind, but the blood seeping around Bucky's fingers was a brutal, bright red against the grey of the sky. Bucky saw it. Maybe he even felt his claws scraping bone. Steve was looking down at his face, and he saw the realization hit Bucky's eyes, and then the depth of horror in them.
"I'm fine! Just hold on!" Steve would have held on forever, let his arm be flayed to ribbons. But Bucky was a protector, and he always put Steve first.
Steve tried holding Bucky's wrist more tightly, but Bucky's fur was slippery and Steve's gloves were slick with his blood. And then Bucky smiled, and Steve knew this was it. He'd lost him.
"Don't do it!" he yelled. "Bucky, no! Don't! Don't, please—!"
Bucky let go and fell away into nothing.
Steve took the Valkyrie down into the ice, promising Peggy a dance she'd never have. He felt bad, leaving her behind, but she was one hell of a woman and he knew she'd have no trouble making a life for herself with or without him.
He didn't really want to die, but it was okay, letting go. He was scared of the pain, but not what would come afterwards. He and Bucky would both spend eternity in anonymous, wintry graves. He liked the symmetry of that: how they could still be together, somehow, if only by the tenuous link of their passing.
It didn't even hurt that much, really, when the Valkyrie hit. He was thrown from his seat and crashed headfirst into one of the plane's support struts. He lay in the belly of the doomed, sinking bomber, barely conscious as the water lapped across the deck towards him.
Dying like this wasn't so bad, he thought. There was sunlight pouring into the remains of the cockpit through the broken windshield, and the air was pure and clean with a tinge of salt. The cold wasn't too bad either. Mostly he was just tired.
The water caressed his side, gently pulling the air from his lungs. He told Bucky to wait for him and closed his eyes.
He has never been human.
He has no name. They call him Chort, because he has horns and claws and he hurts anyone he is told to. He is the Fist of Hydra: their blunt instrument and most dangerous weapon. He is a cudgel, not a blade. They send him where they want him to be seen, or when he isn't supposed to leave anyone alive. Then they bring him back and put him in the Chair and rip out his mind, and afterwards they put him away until they need a monster again.
He is told often how special he is, how many things were designed just for him: His armor, which uses more and heavier plating because of his size and strength; his guns, which all have stocks too large for ordinary human hands. The Chair is massive. He's the only one who can sit in it and not look like a child. The machine they use to destroy and remake him is designed to slide under his horns.
He has gloves with caps for the claws on his fingers, and boots he can't pierce with his toes. He has a mask that covers the lower half of his face like a muzzle, because he is rarely required to speak. They lock metal bands around each of his horns, with a ring they use to attach the chains.
Dogs are led around by the neck, though sometimes they're allowed to go free. But he isn't loyal enough for that, and he towers over everyone. If the chains are on his horns it's easier to pull him to the ground.
He hates it, but he's not human. He's too dangerous to be free.
He shoots his target through the apartment wall and runs. He may have claws on his feet, but he's fast. Faster than any human he's ever encountered, so it's a shock when he reaches the edge of the roof, seconds from a clean escape, and hears the window break behind him. He hears the projectile and whirls in time to deflect the disk (shield. It's a shield, and he recognizes it, but he doesn't know why) with his left horn, sending it careening back towards the blond who threw it.
He steps off the roof and lets himself fall to the ground. Above him, the blond yells, "Bucky! Bucky! Bucky!" The word is lost in the rush of the wind and the snap of bones in his feet when he lands.
The pain is awful, but not crippling. He knew he'd have to escape that way, and he can still make the rendezvous so it's fine. He ignores his injuries the way he always does and keeps going.
He has much more trouble ignoring the word the man shouted at him as he leapt. He feels he should recognize it, just like the shield. It's important. He doesn't know why, but it's important.
It sounded almost like a name.
It eats at him.
He doesn't tell anyone. It's not difficult. His handlers only speak to him if he needs orders, and the techs don't speak to him at all. But every so often Rumlow will look at him as if he knows something's not right, as if the monster's spiraling thoughts have somehow changed him, and it's evident on his face.
He has not changed. He's still horned and clawed and huge and terrifying. He's still Chort, and Hydra's asset. He was born a monster and he always will be one. He still has his mission.
But it eats at him.
The word sounded like a name. It felt like a name. Like his name. But that makes no sense. He's not human. Monsters don't have names, they have designations.
He's the devil or the asset. He's not Bucky. He doesn't know who the hell Bucky is. But the man on the roof….
He knew him. He knew the shield and he knew the man who threw it. It eats at him, spirals frantically beneath the frozen calm of his mission. He can't ignore it.
He doesn't sleep—it's not efficient, and he doesn't need it since he's not human—but sometimes he dreams. At least he can't think of what else it could be, if not dreaming. He goes quiet inside, and suddenly he's somewhere else. His body is smaller, weaker, with no natural weapons. Sometimes he's in a city he almost knows, others he's a soldier (the guns and blood are familiar, not anything else). Sometimes the dream holds nothing but cold, blood and pain.
Often he's with someone else. Mostly the one with him is small and thin and fragile. Occasionally he's much taller, solid and strong. The asset can't remember his name, but knows he's infinitely precious. The asset would die for him.
He's the man from the roof, but that makes no sense either. Why would Hydra's devil die for someone when he wasn't instructed to? Hydra tells him who he should protect and who he should kill. Hydra controls if he lives or if he doesn't. Monsters are too dangerous to be free.
But it eats at him.
He kills the Hydra operative as ordered, but isn't able to eliminate the three targets before he's thrown from the roof of their car. He lands easily, rolling and digging the claws of both hands into the concrete to slow himself down. He has to drop his gun but the loss is acceptable. It's far from his only weapon.
He straightens to his full height, waiting for the S.T.R.I.K.E. team to arrive and ram the targets from behind. The civilians in the other cars aren't his concern unless they get in the way, and so far they're all smart enough to swerve into the adjacent lanes.
He expects the driver of the targets' car to speed up and try to run him over, not that it would do much to him. But instead he can see the taller, blond man from the roof is trying to get out. The second man has his arm, the woman (Natasha Romanov, codename Black Widow, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent) literally clinging to his shoulders from behind. The asset can hear them shouting at him to not leave the car.
The asset could shoot all of them easily—a child couldn't miss at this distance—But he doesn't.
There's no reason for this hesitation. He doesn't understand it. He should shoot them. He needs to shoot them. The punishment will be terrible if he doesn't. But…
But he doesn't want to shoot them. He wants to know why the man from the roof keeps calling to him: "Bucky! Bucky!", and why it feels like his name.
It's been so long since he's wanted anything that he doesn't know what to do with it. He's still struggling with indecision when the rest of his assigned team arrives and rams the targets' car, steering it towards him.
He's so tall that all he needs to do is grab the roof and swing himself onto the car as it goes past him. He doesn't want to hurt them, especially not the man from the roof (You're a protector, Bucky). Then again, he's never wanted to hurt anyone. But he's a monster, and that's what monsters do.
The mission goes on.
It should be easy. Even with their obvious skill, the three targets get separated, making them vulnerable. And even if the one from the roof is nearly as strong as the monster is, he's still a foot shorter and has no inborn weapons.
But the Russian mercenaries assigned to him are stupid. They have no tactics, and rely on their guns too much. In the end he needs to go after each of the three targets himself.
Romanov is brilliant, and if the fight depended on wits alone she'd win. But she is so much smaller than he is. When she tries to garrote him her wire gets trapped on his horns. He hears one of her bones break when she hits the car he throws her at. When she lands she doesn't get up.
He goes to find the man from the roof instead of shooting her. He tells himself she'll likely die soon so he can save the bullets for his next target. He's aware it's just an excuse, and a flimsy one at that, but he walks away all the same.
But the man from the roof won't fight him.
He defends himself at least, but he refuses to attack. All he does is dodge or block with his shield. It should make no difference. Most of the asset's targets never defended themselves at all. But every time he could end the fight by killing him…he doesn't.
Maybe it's because the target won't keep his damn mouth shut.
"Bucky! It's me, it's Steve!"
"Please, stop doing this. I'm your friend!"
"Don't you remember me?"
"What did Hydra do to you?"
"Nothing!" He was always like this. He's a monster. He has no good in him. Hydra did nothing.
The asset has never failed a mission, or ever been afraid of a target. He has never considered that he could be anything other than what his handlers have told him.
When the female target distracts him with a RPG, instead of continuing the fight the way he should, he runs.
He doesn't understand what happens to him after that.
The targets are taken by the S.T.R.I.K.E. team, but he goes back to the vault. He doesn't want to, but his wants are irrelevant. He goes.
They take his mask and goggles because he's not on mission, but he has to put on the special gloves and boots. They snap the bands around his horns and lead him like a dog to the Chair.
He should become quiet, once he's sitting. He's trained to be docile and complaint. But this time he can't stop his thoughts.
He thinks….there are things in his head. Memories? Pictures, like a film. Him falling, hurt, carried. Tortured. Frozen. The man from the roof and the bridge who won't stop calling his name.
Someone touches him and he doesn't want it so he hits them instead. The man's head leaves a dripping red smear on the ceiling.
They bring his chief handler.
Pierce tells him to report, but the film in his head is too loud and he doesn't answer. So Pierce grabs his horns and drives the back of head into the closest part of the chair. The pain is like flipping a switch and he can speak again.
He asks about the man on the roof and the bridge. Who was he? Why does he know him? Pierce stands so he can look him in the eye, but all he does is babble words that slip through the asset's ears like water and barely penetrate the seething mess in his brain.
Pierce tells the terrified technicians to prep him, but they can't. He's been out of cryo too long. So he tells them to wipe him and start over.
They can't do that either. Not as thoroughly as Pierce wants. Not without cutting off his horns.
"Do it. Then wipe him," Pierce says. He settles in to watch, but the technicians are concerned he'll get blood on his nice suit. So Pierce takes Rumlow and two of the guards and walks away.
Two technicians come over and push the monster deeper into the Chair. There are chains welded to its frame that they hook to the metal bands on his horns. The Chair cuffs his arms automatically. He's already breathing fast because he never forgets how terribly this hurts. He could break the cuffs, rip out the chains. He could kill them all easily, even Rollins and the other guards. But he doesn't fight. He knows better than that. They always make sure he remembers the punishment.
Then one of the technicians goes to an instrument table and picks up a Gigli saw. He can see it out of the corner of his eye.
He rips the metal cuffs out of the chair, then lunges forward to snap the chains on his horns. He kills the first tech by punching a crater into his skull. The second he picks up by the neck and tosses into the third as he's standing there paralyzed with fear, the saw dangling between his hands.
The guards open fire. The bullets hurt but he's used to so much more pain than this that it's meaningless next to the rage coursing thought him. They have no right! Not his horns! Steve ordered him not to cut them anymore. Steve swore he wouldn't let anyone else hurt him. But then he fell, and Hydra found him and they hurt him all the time.
He knows better than to fight. But now they want to cut off his horns and there's no way in hell—
He opens his eyes and he has no idea where he is, and then he sees the blood and the bodies and the Chair. All the techs and the men guarding him are dead. He doesn't remember killing them, but their blood is all over him, dripping from horns and his claws.
He's bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds. They hurt like hell but probably won't kill him. He's used to pain anyway. Hydra made sure of that.
He still has his horns. He uses them to smash the locked door of the vault open, then breaks the metal bands. No one is going to lead him anywhere by his horns ever again.
Then he goes hunting.
If he's fast, he can still catch up to Rumlow and Pierce, and find out what the bastards did to Steve before he kills them.
He is very, very fast.
Steve, Maria and Sam arrive at the Triskelion prepared for battle, only to find that the war's over before it began.
Alexander Pierce is dead, along with every member of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s most elite strike team and a handful of midlevel lab techs. No one knows what happened, other than that they all died brutally and had no official reason to be in the abandoned bank vault where the unlucky civilian security guard found them.
Without their leaders, it's easy to rout the Hydra operatives within S.H.I.E.L.D. Steve and Sam replace the targeting blades in each helicarrier while they're still on the ground. The casualties are minimal other than S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, once Natasha and Fury dump all the files on the Net.
A lot of people are going to get arrested in the coming weeks and months. The F.B.I.'s already circling like sharks in the water. There will probably be some kind of official hearing about S.H.I.E.L.D.'s fate too. The government will want someone to blame. Natasha already told him she's prepared to take the fall. She blew all her covers when she exposed her employer on the internet, so she has nothing to lose anymore. Steve's honest enough to admit he's grateful it doesn't have to be him.
Mostly, he's just hovering in that awful place where you're dead tired and jittery as hell at the same time. He wanted a fight, rip out his pound of flesh for every one Hydra took from Bucky all those years. He knows damn well he should be glad for how peacefully it ended, given how much blood's been shed already in Hydra's name. But all he feels is an aching, empty letdown.
Bucky was the one who killed Pierce and Rumlow's S.T.R.I.K.E. team. Steve was certain of it even before it was clear the bodies were torn apart.
There's a fierce, cold pride in knowing Bucky got his vengeance, that he's free. But two days after the end of S.H.I.E.L.D. Steve still can't find him. He has no idea how a seven foot tall man with fur and horns can vanish, but Bucky's gone. Steve can't sleep at night, imagining Bucky's corpse getting dragged out of the Potomac, or years from now someone finding his bewildering bones.
Steve goes back to his apartment, with its boarded up window and the sloppily patched holes in the wall. The lock on the door is new, though he knows how little that means to someone with the skills and determination to get in.
It's not that he doesn't care. He's not looking to get himself hurt, and he's pretty sure Hydra's too deep in its death throes to send anyone after him anyway. Truth is, he's still itching for a fight. Maybe holing up in his old place is like putting up a big, neon target on his back for anyone who wants to take a shot at him. Well, they're welcome to try. And Bucky has the address.
He knows, deep down, that it's too much to hope for, but that's never stopped him before. So he goes back to his dreary, lonely apartment in its stately old building where he can't sleep, and hashes out his plan to find Bucky while he secretly waits for Bucky to follow him home.
Bucky doesn't follow him. But during the night of the third day after S.H.I.E.L.D. goes down someone comes in through Steve's window.
Steve isn't asleep. He lies as still as death on his bed and listens as the window slides open and someone slips inside. Logically there's no reason to assume it's Bucky. It could be Fury again. It could be Natasha. It could be some disgruntled Hydra operative come to murder him.
Could be. But Steve grew up spitting distance from his best friend. Bucky snuck in his window all the time when Steve was sick and Bucky's parents forbade him from visiting. When they shared a place, it was how Bucky would always come in after a night on the town, because he thought Steve wouldn't hear him and wake up.
So now Steve sits up by increments, wills his heart slow, doesn't breathe for listening. And there's the first, tentative tap of a foot on the wooden floor. There's the minute swish of Bucky's shirt against the open frame. And there's the almost-silent creak as he slides the window down behind him.
The sudden, awful thud and crash of a very large body hitting his built-in shelves is definitely unexpected.
Steve rockets out of bed and out of his bedroom. He snatches up his shield on the way just in case.
Bucky's on the floor in the space in front of the window, leaning on the shelf that divides the kitchen from the rest of the apartment. He's sitting with his back against the wall, huddled up so he can't be seen from outside.
Tony may have scoffed at Steve's apartment looking like 'an upscale cube farm', whatever the hell that meant, but to Steve it felt like a luxury of space after the tenement he lived in with his mother in Brooklyn. Bucky makes the apartment look claustrophobic.
He blinks up at Steve, dull-eyed and colorless in the near absence of light. His left horn catches the corner of a book and drags it off the shelf. Bucky's mouth twitches unhappily when it hits the floor. "Sorry."
"It's okay," Steve says automatically. He goes closer, still holding his shield. "Bucky?" He can smell leather and cloves, Bucky's particular scent, and a lot of blood. "Oh my God." He drops his shield and crosses the final distance, kneeling in front of him. "Bucky, are you hurt?"
Bucky moves his head with an effort to meet Steve's eyes again. "I thought you were taller."
Steve chokes out a laugh with tears behind it. "I was for a while, and then you went and grew, you jerk." Steve carefully reaches for him. "You're bleeding, Buck. Can I take off your armor? I need to see."
"I'm not hurt that badly," Bucky says, like he has no idea why Steve might be concerned. But he leans back, giving Steve easier access to the buckles. "I killed my handlers."
Steve's fingers freeze over the top buckle before he undoes it. "I know you killed them. I didn't know they were your handlers. I…." He grimaces, too full of remorse, guilt, grief and rage on Bucky's behalf to even begin expressing it. "I'm glad they're dead," is the best he can come up with. It's absolutely true.
"Yeah," Bucky says softly. He watches Steve's fingers with distant fascination. "They were going to cut off my horns. I remembered you telling me I couldn't do that anymore. So I killed them. I killed all of them." He looks up at Steve again. His horns bang against the wall next to the window. "You swore to me you wouldn't let anyone hurt me again. But you couldn't stop it. So I did."
Steve swallows. "I'm so sorry I couldn't stop it. I'm so sorry I didn't know."
The computerized Zola must have known Pierce would send Bucky after him, and that Steve would recognize the horns and Bucky's scent, even if he couldn't see his face. Steve wonders if Pierce knew who his asset was. Maybe he did. Maybe Pierce sent Bucky after him precisely because he knew Steve would recognize him. The thought chills him to the bone.
"S'not your fault," Bucky says. Natasha told Steve the same thing. He can't believe it any more now than he did when she said it. Bucky hisses in pain when he moves to help Steve get his heavy leather shirt off. "I'll heal," he says.
"I know," Steve says quietly. He wants to burn Bucky's armor, but he doesn't think he has anything in Bucky's size to replace it. He puts it aside instead. "I saw how fast you healed. I just hate you being in pain."
"You won't let anyone hurt me anymore," Bucky says.
Steve can't tell if he's repeating a memory or saying it because it's what he really believes. He hopes Bucky believes it. "Damn straight." He shifts so he's crouching, then pulls Bucky's nearer arm across his shoulders. "I'm going to help you up, then take you into the bathroom. There are no windows in there, and you need to clean your wounds."
Bucky grunts in assent, then struggles to his feet with Steve's help. He's barefoot, the way he was on the bridge. His toe claws leave small gashes in the wood floor.
It's awkward, getting him through the apartment without destroying the furniture. Steve's nearly a head shorter than he is, and Bucky's densely muscled and very, very heavy. It's difficult not banging into things. By the time they finally get to the bathroom Steve's apartment looks worse than when Fury nearly died in it. Bucky apologizes profusely every time he bumps something. It makes Steve sad.
"This feels right," Bucky says when Steve's managed to nudge the bathroom door shut behind them. Steve has no idea what he means, until he looks at their reflections in the mirror over the sink. He's tucked easily under Bucky's arm. The image is so familiar that Steve startles in shock.
Decades may have passed while he was in the ice, but for him he's had this body for less than five years, compared to the twenty five years he spent enduring his frail, sickly one. His new body, for all its capability and beauty, still feels as alien most days as the world he woke up in.
That doesn't mean he misses being fragile and small. But this: Bucky's strong, heavy arm over his shoulders, pulling him against the solidity of his frame… Some days Steve missed it so much it felt like he wouldn't survive. Most of the time he just tried not to think about it. He didn't need to waste time dwelling on yet one more thing he knew he'd never have again.
"Yeah, it does feel right," Steve says softly. His reflection's eyes are wet.
Bucky's quiet as Steve helps him out of the rest of his gear and into the shower that's perfectly adequate for Steve but horribly cramped for a man just over seven feet tall. Bucky sits down in the tub with the bemused resignation of someone used to difficulty in everyday things. He seems surprised that the water's warm.
Bucky reaches for the soap, but just blinks when he sees Steve squeeze a dollop of shampoo onto his palm.
"Is it all right if I wash your hair?" Steve asks. They did this for each other every so often, back in Brooklyn before the war. Bucky loved Steve massaging his scalp, but he doesn't know if Bucky remembers it.
Then Bucky nods, and drops his head forward the way he always did. Steve lets out a breath of gratitude like a silent prayer.
"That's…good. I like it," Bucky says when Steve's half finished. His voice is so soft it's almost lost under the rumble of the water.
"I'm glad." Steve washes carefully around the base of each of Bucky's horns, then on a whim soaps them all the way to the pointed tips. When they're rinsed they gleam.
He gives Bucky the soap after that and retreats to the other side of the room, not wanting to overstep. Bucky washes himself listlessly but methodically, though by the time he's cleaning between his large, lightly furred toes he seems more asleep than awake.
He manages to climb out of the tub, then stands dripping on shaky legs while Steve dries him as best he can. Bucky doesn't have a tail, something Steve's both happy for and a little disappointed about. The fur covering him is universal in texture and thickness all the way from the backs of his pointed, rabbit-soft ears to the tops of his wide, clawed toes. It's only longer at his wrists, the backs of his elbows and around his ankles, hanging in fine, silky fetlocks like baby hair. It's mostly the same reddish-tan color as a dun horse, blending to the same nut brown as his hair at his ears, underarms and his groin.
Bucky smells as good as Steve remembers.
Steve is still as fascinated now as he was during the war, just as eager to touch. But he's very, very careful not to stare or let his touches linger, in case it makes Bucky uncomfortable. He's not sure if Bucky notices him not noticing, but Bucky keeps looking down instead of meeting his eyes.
As soon as he's dry, Steve bandages the wounds that still need it, then helps Bucky to his bedroom and onto the bed. Bucky curls up with the covers bunched around his waist, so his feet won't hang off the edge. He pushes the pillow away, resting his head on the circle of his horn. He looks sweet and forlorn and sad.
Steve stands right at the edge of the bed, running his hand along Bucky's side. The velveteen softness is intoxicating. All Steve wants in the whole world is to curl up next to him with his back to Bucky's chest, tucked safe and warm against him like they used to before everything went to hell. "I really missed you," he says. The words can't get close to the depths of his grief and loneliness, but anything more will undo him completely. He won't force Bucky to deal with that.
Bucky rolls onto his back, letting his feet stretch off the end of the bed. He looks at Steve and opens his arms.
"Oh, God, Buck." Steve bends to hug him, only for Bucky to pull him right off his feet and onto the bed. He rolls onto his other side, trying to maneuver Steve until Steve realizes what he wants and helps him. They end up curled up on their sides together, with Bucky's arms around Steve's chest and waist and Steve's head tucked under his chin.
"I remember you," Bucky says. "I remember being with you. This is okay, right? We did this?"
"Yeah," Steve rasps. "This is…this is perfect." He worms his hands under Bucky's, threading their fingers together. Bucky's hands engulf his. His chest is solid and soft as down against Steve's back. Steve can't remember being this comfortable or happy since before the war.
Bucky pushes a knee between Steve's, as if he can't get close enough. Steve feels Bucky relax, muscles twitching as he sinks into sleep. He exhales a deep, contented sigh before his breath evens out.
Steve closes his eyes, matches his breathing to Bucky's until he follows him into sleep. It's the best he's had in years.
He wakes up alone.
Steve opens his eyes to the grey of early morning, horribly certain something's wrong but with no idea what. Then he remembers that Bucky fell asleep with him, but he's not there anymore. His side of the bed is cold.
For a moment, after the panic of he's gone he's gone he's gone subsides, Steve wonders if Bucky was ever there at all, or if Steve constructed him wholesale from the substance of his loneliness. Then he hears what he already recognizes as the sound of a horn hitting the wall.
Steve bolts out of bed and runs to the source of the noise, now horribly certain that Bucky is leaving. But he's not. He's in the kitchen, not near the window. He's sitting on the floor with his legs comfortably akimbo and a large mug of coffee at his side. The pot on the percolator burner is empty. There's a milk-streaked mixing bowl in the sink, and two empty boxes of cereal on the counter. The loaf of bread Steve bought yesterday is almost gone.
Bucky is wearing a pair of Steve's track pants which barely cover his legs past the knee. The book he pulled off the shelf last night is open on his lap. Steve's bookmark is on the floor.
He's not reading, though. He's just staring at the picture of Mars-Ammon Steve marked, though his eyes are distant and blank, as if he's seeing something else entirely. He doesn't react when Steve comes in.
"Bucky?" Steve carefully goes closer, unsure whether he should be concerned or not. Bucky would get like this sometimes when they were growing up: get so focused on what he was thinking about that he'd kind of disappear inside his head. It used to worry Steve until they'd been friends long enough for him to know Bucky would always come back.
Steve wishes he could still be sure of that now. "You in there, pal?" His shield is near the window where he dropped it last night. He glances at it, gauging the distance between it and him before he crouches and puts a hand on Bucky's ankle, jostling him a little bit. "Bucky? Can you hear me? Are you all right?" He mentally prepares himself to run, but Bucky just blinks a couple times and looks up at him.
"Steve," he says, with the same dazed, wondering smile Steve remembers from Zola's isolation ward decades before.
"Are you okay?" Steve reaches for one of Bucky's horns, just wanting to feel the smooth ridges again, but at the last moment he cups the side of Bucky's neck instead. He was taught better than to grab people without asking.
"Why do you keep touching me?" Bucky asks.
Steve yanks his hand back. "I'm sorry. You're right. I should've asked. I didn't—"
"No." Bucky shakes his head. "I mean…." He grimaces. "Why do you keep touching me?"
"Oh." Now he understands the question, but he's not sure how to answer. "Because it's you," he tries, but Bucky just looks confused. "Because I love you, and I missed you. I like knowing you're here." He reaches for Bucky again. "Can I touch your horn?"
Steve can't tell if Bucky looks so baffled because he doesn't know why Steve would want to touch him, or why Steve would ask first, but Bucky bends his head to make it easier for Steve to reach his horns. Steve grasps the left one loosely, feeling out the whorls and ridges with his fingertips. "I also just like touching you," he says. "I love the texture of your horns, and how warm they are near your head." He traces the edge of Bucky's soft, soft ear, then the fur behind it, dragging his fingers to Bucky's chest. Bucky shivers. "Your fur reminds me of rabbit ears, or kitten fur. It's so soft. I love it." He takes one of Bucky's hands and turns it palm up, holding it in both of his. "Your claws are fascinating. They're smooth, but deadly if you want them to be." He puts Bucky's hand and his together, palm to palm. Steve's fingers are shorter than his. "Do you remember how it used to be like that? Before I got the serum?"
Bucky's eyes look away as he hunts for the memory. He nods, just a little uncertain. "You…fit, with me."
Steve beams at him, then slots his fingers in between Bucky's to link their hands. "I loved not being weak, after the serum. But we didn't fit anymore. Not the same way. Now we do again."
Bucky's smile is a fragile echo of Steve's, and it only lasts a moment. "But…" He frowns. "I looked different." He rubs one of his horns the way Steve did: running his fingers over the thick ridges. It reminds Steve of rubbing the back of his own neck for self-comfort. "Why do I remember looking different?"
Steve takes a breath. He moves his hand to Bucky's nape, kneading gently with his fingers. "You did look different. You were shorter, and you didn't have the horns or the claws or fur, and your ears weren't pointed. You weren't born like this. Hydra did that to you."
Bucky stares at Steve, his forehead creased as if nothing he heard made sense. "But I'm a monster."
"No you're not!"
"I am." Bucky doesn't sound angry, just plaintive and uncomprehending. "I know I am." He looks at his hand, turning it so that the claws catch the light. They shine like obsidian. "Bad becomes worse," He murmurs, then looks up at Steve again. "I remembered that. Bad becomes worse."
"No, Buck." Steve pulls his hand from Bucky's neck before he does something stupid like shake him in frustration. He goes closer and hugs him instead. It's automatic to tuck his head under Bucky's chin, like a muscle memory he never lost. Bucky's strong, steady heart thumps beneath his ear. "God, I wish I'd never told you that. Yeah, bad becomes worse. But good becomes better. Remember that? You're good. You've always been good. Not even Hydra could take that from you."
Bucky runs his big, warm hand up and down Steve's back. "But I'm a monster."
"Oh, God, Buck." Steve can't help the tiny fissure in his voice. "You're not. You're not a monster. You don't understand. You have no idea how good you are. How much I missed you. I love you."
"I love you too." Bucky plants a kiss on Steve's crown.
Steve gasps and lifts his head. Bucky freezes, his eyes wide with fear. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I…I thought…I remembered…."
Steve kisses him. Full and lush and deep, the way he's dreamed about since their last time together in the abandoned farmhouse, when Bucky pushed him away. Bucky's mouth is hot, and it tastes like coffee and cloves. Steve hates having to pull away to breathe. "You remembered it right, Buck. You remembered it exactly right." He kisses him again, putting his whole heart into it, hoping Bucky will understand. "I love you," he says the next time they break apart. "I've loved you my whole life. This is…" He swallows, and his smile is watery when he grins. "This is exactly right."
Bucky's smile is full of wonder.
Steve kisses him again. The silk of Bucky's fur feels electric against his bare skin, and Bucky smells incredible. Steve strokes over Bucky's kiss-reddened lips with his thumb. "Nothing bad could be this beautiful."
He realizes a second too late that it's the worst thing he could have said. Bucky doesn't push him away, but he turns his head and closes his eyes, just like he did the last time Steve dared call him beautiful. "You're the only one who isn't afraid of me," he says. The implication is clear.
Steve tugs Bucky's closer ear. "That's not true. That's not true, Bucky. Hey, C'mon. Look at me."
Bucky does, reluctantly. His expression is a war between anger and grief. "They call me the devil for a reason. I know what I am."
"You know what Hydra forced you to be."
Bucky turns away again. "Nothing that wasn't already there."
"That's bullshit," Steve snaps. "You're a protector, remember? Remember me and the other Howlies telling you that?"
"'Cause you wanted it to be true."
"It is true! How can—why…." Steve cuts himself off with a growl of frustration. He moves back just far enough to scoop the book off the floor. It's a thick hardcover with no dustjacket, just the title and volume number in somber gold lettering on the spine. It shut without his bookmark, but Steve remembers the page. "The picture you were looking at, that's Ammon, the Greek and Roman version of Amun, the ancient Egyptian god of creation and life itself. He protected people who had no one else to help them, and could even give new life to the dead. The emperor Augustus associated him with Mars, the god of war who protected soldiers. You got noticed by Zola at the factory because you were protecting the other men. You fell to your…to what you thought would be your death because you protected me on the train. You've protected people your whole life. That's your Good. That's always been your Good. And when you got the serum, it changed you to make you better." He taps the picture. "That statue looks like you, doesn't it?"
Bucky takes the book carefully, then delicately traces the photograph of the horned, bearded face before looking at Steve again. "Why do you have this? What does it have to do with me?"
Steve rubs the back of his neck. "When I got out of the ice…." He swallows. It's been years and he still can barely talk about it. "When I got out of the ice, everything was so different it felt like I wasn't even on the same planet anymore. For everyone else it'd been decades, but for me it'd just been a few days since you…since I thought you'd died. And I missed you so badly…." He takes a breath, reminding himself that Bucky's right here, alive and recovering. "And all I could think of was…was how you'd died thinking you weren't good. And I couldn't stand it. So I found proof that you were wrong."
Bucky touches Steve's face, so gentle with his claws that Steve barely feels them. "If I'm so good, why don't I look like you?"
He asked the same question 70 years ago. Steve didn't have a good answer then. He does now. "Because I'm a stubborn asshole who's Good is stopping bullies. You have to be big and strong to wade into a fight with someone who'll probably kick your teeth in."
"I waded into plenty of fights," Bucky says.
"Yeah. To protect me." Steve taps his chest. "You never started them. I did. I always started the fights, and you always ended them. That's not all you did. You stole for me and Ma—I know you did, don't pretend otherwise—took shitty jobs to keep me in medicine, gave me half or most of your lunch every day to make sure I had enough to eat…."
"I did all that for you."
"That, sure. But you looked after everyone. Hell, half the men I rescued from Schmidt's factory said they owed their lives to you, if only for distracting the guards so someone could rest a few seconds. A couple of them were sure you'd been dragged off to the isolation ward as punishment for being such a pain in the ass."
Bucky's mouth flickers in a semblance of a smirk.
Steve reaches up and touches one of Bucky's horns again. "They tried to make you into a perfect soldier, but they couldn't. Because you were already a good man." He trails his fingers down to the base of Bucky's horn, down his temple to his jaw before leaving his hand splayed on the side of Bucky's neck. "That's why you're beautiful. And that's why you don't look like me."
"I want to believe you," Bucky says. "I don't…." He sighs. "I want to believe you."
"Then believe me."
He shakes his head. "It won't change how I look. Or what I did."
"That wasn't you. You didn't have a choice."
Bucky smiles with bitter resignation. "I know. But I did it. There's no such thing as a good monster."
"Tell that to Sesame Street. It's a kids' television show," Steve adds quickly when Bucky stares at him in bewilderment. "You can look it up. But it has a lot of monsters. Good monsters."
Bucky still looks bewildered. "Why?"
Steve shrugs. "Because sometimes the world needs good monsters."
"Good monsters," Bucky repeats, like he's trying out the idea. He looks at his claws again. "And kids like that? A show with monsters in it? They're not afraid?"
Steve's pretty sure he knows what Bucky's really asking. "No, they're not afraid. Not when they know the monster won't hurt them."
Bucky drops his gaze. "I never wanted to hurt anyone."
Steve takes his hand. "I know."
Bucky nods distantly. He wiggles his toes, making the claws shimmer as they reflect the light. "I'm not human anymore, Stevie. 'Doesn't matter what you say. I got eyes. I'm a monster. Nothing's gonna change that."
"Shhh. I ain't done yet." Bucky gives Steve a brief smile when he obediently shuts his mouth. "I'm a monster. Maybe I wasn't born like this, but it's what I am now. I gotta live with it. But…." He bites his lip, then takes a breath and squares his wide, wide shoulders. "Maybe I can be a good one." He looks at Steve, his eyes full of uncertain hope. "Be a protector again? Like I did for you?"
"Like you did for everyone, Buck," Steve says. He hugs him, pulling his massive body into as tight an embrace as he can. "Just like you did for everyone."
In retrospect, maybe Steve shouldn't have been all that surprised that the Avengers welcomed Bucky so readily. Then again, the team already had a god and a monster. One more of either didn't really make much difference.
The only real argument was for Bucky's code name. Steve wanted 'Ammon', but Bucky nixed that since they already had Thor. Tony thought Bucky should be called 'The Beast', which made Steve 'Beauty'. Tony thought that was hilarious. So did Bucky. Luckily for Steve no one else did.
Clint suggested 'Wampa', which Bucky also thought was hilarious, once he'd watched The Empire Strikes Back. Fury nixed that one.
Steve's second choice was to use Bucky, since it was his name.
In the end, they called him 'Monster'. It was Bucky's choice. It was simple, and it fit, he said. He was a monster, after all. No denying it.
He was just one of the good ones.